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About the Kentucky Derby

There are several great sporting traditions and events in United States history. Ranging from the Super Bowl to the Daytona 500, virtually everyone in the country can find a source of entertainment through sports. While the popularity and excitement around these events tend to change year to year, the Kentucky Derby stands as one in which each year seems to bring the same, or greater, level of excitement.

The Kentucky Derby stands as the oldest continuous sporting event in the United States and has stood the test of time through many cataclysmic events. The Derby has certainly changed and evolved over the years, but its place at the pinnacle of American sporting tradition remains unmatched.

Below we will take a look at the history of the Kentucky Derby and cover just how it has become the iconic event it remains today.

When was the first Kentucky Derby?

old black and white picture of jockey on horse

Horse racing is one of the oldest sports known in the United States, with unsanctioned races having taken place since people learned how to ride. We do know that the earliest sanctioned horse race in the United States took place in Salisbury, New York back in 1665. It would take another two centuries for the first Kentucky Derby to be held, but it was certainly worth the wait.

Colonel Meriwether Lewis Jr. purchased land for what is today Churchill Downs from his uncles John and Henry Churchill in 1872 and then formed the Louisville Jockey Club in Louisville, Kentucky two years later. From there, the first official Kentucky Derby would be held on May 17th, 1875, in which jockey Oliver Lewis rode Aristides to victory in front of 10,000 spectators.

Tradition - Through the Years

crowd of people in the grandstands of Churchill Downs

Few great traditions remain completely untouched throughout history, but the Derby has stayed largely true to its roots over the century and a half it has existed. The Kentucky Derby has remained the same and yet changed in several ways over the years, with the number of horses varying along with the day on which it all takes place.

As noted above, the first race took place on May 17th, which was a Monday. The Kentucky Derby takes place today on the first Saturday of May, which means this year’s Derby will be held on May 4th. In fact, the Kentucky Derby has been held on the first Saturday of May every year since 1931 and will go off rain or shine. The two weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby are jam-packed with a ton of events that are held around the city. Kicking it off is the largest firework display in the world, Thunder Over Louisville.

How many Horses run in the Derby?

Many people who are unfamiliar with the Derby are unfamiliar with how many horses run or how those horses qualify for the race. Well, those details have changed over the years but have remained fairly consistent in recent history. Twenty horses can qualify for the Kentucky Derby and that has been the case since 1975. The largest Kentucky Derby field ever was in 1974, when 23 horses ran the race. Just because twenty horses can qualify does not mean that this many will qualify, though. In fact, less than twenty ran until 1981, and 21 ran in that year after a court mandate.

Did You Know: The tradition of draping the winning horse with a garland of red roses started in 1896. This led to the Derby being referred to as the "Run for the Roses."

In the early years of the Derby, horses were selected based on their prize winnings throughout the season, but that policy was eventually scrapped in favor of the current selection process. To qualify for the Kentucky Derby, there are several races that horses must place within the top five earlier in the season. Depending on point totals tallied across those races, horses will be able to run in the prestigious 1 ¼ mile race at Churchill Downs or miss the cut.

The Cost of Attending the Kentucky Derby

crowd of people in line at the kentucky derby

For all the fanfare and buzz around the race, it’s easy to forget that the actual race is just about two minutes long. That doesn’t change the fact that it is arguably the most exciting two minutes in all sports, though. It’s fair to wonder what you should expect to pay to attend such an iconic American sporting event, which is why we’ve broken down the overall cost to the best of our abilities here.

 Seating Starting at
 General Admission $275
 New Paddock $693
 Reserved Seating $650
 Dining $1,375
 Private Suites $135,000

There are several different types of tickets available for purchase that range from wallet-friendly to luxurious. For those simply looking to attend the race, general admission tickets cost around $75. These tickets don’t have an assigned seat, but you’ll still have an opportunity to see the horses saddled before the race in the paddock area.

Did You Know: Churchill Downs' most exclusive seating area, known as "Millionaires Row," hosts celebrities, wealthy individuals, and other high-profile guests during the Derby.

If you are interested in clubhouse seating, those tickets ballpark at $650 each on the low end and will get you entry to the Kentucky Derby and the Oaks Race held the day prior. For those who are looking to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience, tickets in the coveted “Millionaire’s Row” can be had starting at just under $7,000 at the moment. It is important to remember that the price of any ticket is going to vary depending on where you look and the time of year.

Of course, there are several other factors to take into consideration when planning a trip to Churchill Downs to take in the Kentucky Derby. You’ll likely need to consider the cost of parking, which can be found for as small a fee as $40 if you are willing to walk a bit. You can also take a bus there for a little less than $100 if you are looking to make an experience of the trip and perhaps sample some renowned Kentucky Bourbon. Food and drink can be as little or as much as you want, too. If you are looking to take in a meal at one of the top restaurants in Louisville, expect to pay a few hundred dollars. Conversely, if you are looking at more budget-friendly options, you can purchase lunch ahead of time at a grocery store to enjoy the race and overall experience.

Whether it be the accommodations, the flight, drive, or extra add-ons, your Kentucky Derby experience can be as cost-conscientious or cost-prohibitive as you wish. What we do know is that it is possible to take in the Derby and have a great experience for a few hundred dollars or several thousand. It’s simply up to you to determine what you are comfortable spending and what you’d like your experience to be like.

What to Wear to the Kentucky Derby

Couple dressed up and kentucky derby taking a selfie

For many, much of the fun derived from attending the Kentucky Derby is deciding on what to wear. Every year there are thousands of guests sprawled throughout Churchill Downs who have put a great deal of time and energy into their attire. While there are no real rules to what to wear to the Derby, it’s well known that one should look to dress to impress.

Whether you’re a man or a woman, it’s important to keep in mind where you will be attending the Kentucky Derby. If you are in an outdoor box, you’ll likely want something that is fashionable and makes sense for spending a day out in the open where you could be exposed to the sun or elements. A good rule of thumb is that the higher you find yourselves seated in the clubhouse, the dressier you should be. There will also be some areas that come with strict dress codes, so keep that in mind, too. Footwear should be bold, no matter the exact selection or type of shoe for your outfit. You may wish to bring a nice bag with you but make sure that they are both functional and fashionable while adhering to the Churchill Downs bag policy.

Did You Know: The Twin Spires atop the grandstands are the most recognizable symbol of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby. They were designed by architect Joseph Dominic Baldez and built in 1895.

If you are a woman, it is customary (and expected) that you attend the Kentucky Derby in a hat or a fascinator. Fascinators, which are alternatives to hats, have become more popular as of late and can vary greatly in style and appearance just like a more elegant and traditional hat. Whether you opt for the former or the latter, make sure you’ve got something eye-catching on the day of the Derby. If you are in the market for a hat or fascinator, they can be readily found at online retailers or in a local shop in Louisville.

Who Attends the Kentucky Derby

Aside from yourself and your companions, the Kentucky Derby is a true “who’s who” of American high class, fame, and fortune. It is very common to see not just the most famous people from Kentucky on Derby Day, but also prominent musicians, actors, athletes, politicians, and other celebrities from all over the country and world. When the red carpet is rolled out at the Kentucky Derby, you can be sure that you’ll see some of the most iconic people in the world.

List of some celebrities that have attended the Kentucky Derby: 

  1. Queen Elizabeth II
  2. Michael Jordan
  3. Tom Brady
  4. Jennifer Lawerence
  5. Aaron Rodgers
  6. Jack Harlow
  7. Kim Kardashian
  8. Miranda Lambert 
  9. Kate Upton
  10. Kid Rock

Food and Drinks

close up of the mint julep drink

Kentucky Derby fashion is certainly iconic, but the food and drink one can find in and around Churchill Downs shouldn’t be slept on, either. Whether you’re looking for something traditional or out of your comfort zone, you can bet that you’ll find something to love leading up to the Derby.

Some of the most traditional dishes that many enjoy are tea sandwiches, deviled eggs, and cracklin’ pimento cheese. If you’re up for a nice twist on the classic ice cream sundae, check out a Derby Sundae which features mint-infused vanilla ice cream and maraschino cherries soaked in Woodford Reserve Bourbon. Beyond that, you have your pick of many different Southern staples that are sure to add to the Kentucky Derby experience.

Did You Know: Mint Julep is the traditional beverage of the Derby. Each year, almost 120,000 Mint Juleps are served at Churchill Downs over the two days of the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby.

All that food isn’t going to show up spontaneously, of course. Luckily, there are several phenomenal places to enjoy a meal before or after the Derby. Ranging from traditional southern steakhouses, and barbeque joints, to classic Italian and Mexican fair, there are many selections to choose from that fit virtually every price range. Whatever you decide, make sure you don’t skip out on the Mint Julep and Kentucky Bourbons to wash it all down with. Still hungry after your meal? You wouldn’t want to miss out on a slice of Derby pie and it’s buttery, brown sugar goodness!

Conclusion: Celebrating the 150th Kentucky Derby

No matter your preferences, anyone can have a spectacular time at the Kentucky Derby! Even if you aren’t attending in person, throwing a Derby Day party can be an amazing time, too. Send out classy invitations to your friends and family and have everyone bring a traditional Derby dish if you can’t make it to Churchill Downs. Dress up in your best Derby attire and make a day of it! You could even place a few friendly wagers on the winner to really up the ante a bit.

The Kentucky Derby is the most exciting two minutes in all of sports for a reason and draws some of the most influential and famous people in the country for a reason. Whether you’re planning an extravagant day of it or something more low-key, be sure to consider our recommendations and enjoy the race!

Posted by Nathan Garrett on
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