Derby Days

Thoroughbreds, mint juleps, big hats—the Kentucky Derby's place in American history

"During Derby Week, Louisville is the capital of the world," wrote John Steinbeck in 1956. (Corbis)

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Big hats also date back to the race's early years. Ladies attend the races decked out in their finery, with hats that can be fancy or fanciful. Along with the standard wide-brimmed chapeaux decorated with ribbons and flowers, the Derby Museum has on exhibit a hat made out of coffee cans arranged to look like a horse's head.

Gentlemen prefer the simpler straw boater hat, but that too can also include accessories like tiny horses and roses, the Derby's official flower. The race earned the nickname "Run for the Roses" (coined by sportswriter Bill Corum in 1925) because of the roses that have been draped over the winning horse since 1896. Today the official garland of 554 blooms is hand-made at a local Kroger grocery store the afternoon before the race.

This year on May 5, Churchill Downs will be "jam-packed," says Ferguson. "Unless you have a seat, there's no guarantee you will see a horse or a race." But for the 150,000 people expected to attend, the crowds, the dust (or mud, if it rains), the expense (general admission tickets are $40, with hard-to-get season boxes going for up to $2,250) and the unpredictability are all worth it.

The Kentucky Derby is the 10th of 12 races on Derby Day, held after several hours of wagering and julep-drinking. The crowd begins to buzz as the horses walk from their barns into the paddock, where they're saddled and mounted. The horses step onto the track to the cheers of a crowd the size of Dayton, Ohio, and as they parade around the first turn and back to their gates, the band strikes up "My Old Kentucky Home."

As the horses get stationed behind the starting gates, the crowd quiets down, but cheers erupt again as the bell rings, the gates open and the horses gallop out. "The whole place just screams—it's an explosion of noise," says Ferguson. "When the horses are on the back side the anticipation builds, and as they come around home it's a wall of sound." Just thinking about it, he says, "I'm getting goose bumps. And I'm not kidding."

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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