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8 Exciting facts about the Kentucky Derby

For a mere 120 seconds on the first Saturday of May, 20 thoroughbred horses take center stage in Louisville at the Kentucky Derby, the country’s longest continuously running sporting event. Often referred to as the “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” the race is first of the annual Triple Crown races, with the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes following in the ensuing weeks. With 155,000 people watching on-site and another 16 million on television, the stakes are high — and the payoff well worth it, with $2 million in prize money. Here are eight facts about the race known as the “Run for the Roses.”

The Kentucky Derby Was Started by a Grandson of Explorer William Clark

While William Clark was a well-known explorer, gaining notoriety for his expedition with Meriwether Lewis, his grandson Meriweather Lewis Clark Jr. was drawn to a different path. After attending England’s Epsom Derby, he decided to bring the concept back to the U.S.In 1874, he turned to his uncles John and Henry Churchill for land and formed the Louisville Jockey Club. A year later, the first Kentucky Derby was held on its own newly built racetrack.

Even in its inaugural edition, the race was a popular affair, with about 10,000 fans turning up to watch 15 thoroughbreds along the 1.5-mile course, with Aristides winning the title. Despite the Churchills’ involvement from the start, the name Churchill Downs didn’t get used for the track until 1883.

Only 3-Year-Old Horses Can Compete

In all three Triple Crown Races, horses only have one chance to compete: the year they are age 3. It’s a caveat that started back with English horse racing in the 18th century. The thought is that because thoroughbreds reach full maturity at the age of 4 and that they’re still young at 2, the age of 3 is somehow the magic number.

Birth dates also have a different meaning for thoroughbreds. No matter when in a year they are born, all the ones born in the Northern Hemisphere share a birthday of January 1, while Southern Hemisphere horses are designated with August 1. The universal dates help keep track of the bloodlines.

The “Call to Post” Only Has 34 Notes

Ten minutes before start time, the bugle plays a “Call to Post.” Used for horse racing as far back as the 1860s, the song was likely chosen for its familiar tune, which only consists of 34 notes. The song is also used in various military situations, such as a courtesy signal, and is simply named “First Call” in the U.S. Army manual.

“My Old Kentucky Home” Is Played as the Racers Head to the Starting Gate

The Stephen Foster classic “My Old Kentucky Home” was reportedly first played at the 1921 Derby, but it’s uncertain at what point during the event it was heard. A few years later in 1930, a report by the Philadelphia Public Ledger said that when the song came on as the horses left the paddock, the crowd started cheering — and the tradition was born. In almost every year since 1936, the tune has been played by the University of Louisville marching band as the horses and jockeys made their way to the start.

Horses with “S” names tend to win

Secretariat might be the best-known winning horse in recent years, having finished the race in about one minute and 59 second in 1973. But he’s part of a long line of Kentucky Derby champions whose names start with the letter “S.” Since the Derby’s inception, 19 winners have had “S” names, including Spokane in 1889, Stone Street in 1908, Spend a Buck in 1985, Sunday Silence in 1989, Street Sense in 2007, and Super Saver in 2010.

The next most common letters are “B” and “C,” each with 13 winners. No winner has ever had a name starting with “Q,” “X,” or “Y.”

Mint Juleps Didn’t Become the Official Drink Until 1939

For a state known for both horse racing and bourbon, it makes sense that the pair joined forces. Made of mint, sugar, ice, bourbon, and rum, juleps were a favorite among society members since the 1800s, trickling over to race culture as early as the 1820s.

Even so, it wasn't until 1939 that it earned its rightful place as the race’s official drink. People were stealing the glasses that the juleps were served in, so racetrack managers decided to start selling them as souvenirs. Nowadays, during the two days of the Kentucky Oaks — the race for 3-year-old thoroughbred fillies — and Kentucky Derby, the track serves up nearly 120,00 mint juleps made with more than 10,000 bottles of Old Forester Mint Julep Ready-to-Serve Cocktail, 1,000 pounds of fresh mint, and 60,000 pounds of ice.

The Garland of Roses Is Made at a Grocery Store

Roses have been a Derby tradition since 1896, when a garland of white and pink roses was given to the winner. Eight years later, the red rose became the official flower. However, it wasn’t until 1925 that sports journalist Bill Corum dubbed the race “Run for the Roses.”

The Garland of Roses as we know it today — which is 122 inches long, 22 inches wide, and about 40 pounds — was first stitched together in 1932 by Grace Kingsley Walker. The design has more than 400 roses on a green satin backing with the Commonwealth seal on one side and the Twin Spires and the number of that year’s running on the other. Each garland is also topped with a crown of roses and green fern with a single rose pointing up to symbolizethe “struggle and heart necessary to reach the Derby Winner’s Circle.”

In 1987, a new tradition started, in which a local Kroger grocery store makes the garland the day before the race and invites the public to watch the 10- to 12-hour process.

Derby Hats Were Always a Part of the Tradition

These days, the Derby is known as much for the fashion as the race itself, a part of the tradition that started from the first race. Clark wanted to draw an upper-class audience, and the original event invited the women to put the newest fashion of the time on display. Hats were at the center of the looks, with coordinating dresses, bags, and even parasols. In fact, a woman without a hat on could be considered “indecent,” according to Kathy Olliges, owner of Kentucky-based hat shot, Dee’s Derby Hats.

While the fashion of the 1920s through 1950s tended to favor smaller hats, in the 1960s, hats became bigger, brighter, and more extravagant, simply because it was a time when “social fashion norms loosened up,” the official site says. Nowadays, while men tend to stick to fedoras, women’s outfits are traditionally designed based on the hat.

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