The Kentucky Derby for Beginners

Tomorrow night, all eyes will be on Louisville, Kentucky, specifically Churchill Downs where 20 horses will compete in the most prestigious horse race of the year also known as the “Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports”. The Kentucky Derby is steeped in history and tradition, not to mention giant, crazy hats and mint juleps but unless you’re involved in the horseracing world (or a big gambler), you might need a bit of a primer to help make heads or tails of it all.

Kentucky Derby

We’ve put together a quick Q & A to help you make sense of all the details.

1. How long is the Kentucky Derby?
The race is just 1.25 miles long run by three-year-old Thoroughbred horses. This translates into a race that lasts about as long as a bathroom break, so we advise you exercise restraint around the start time or you just might miss it.

2. What is a Thoroughbred horse, anyway? Does that mean every horse is “purebred”?
A Thoroughbred is a breed that originated in 17th and 18th century England by mating mostly English mares with imported Turkish, Barb and Arabian stallions. All modern Thoroughbreds can trace their lineage back to three of these stallions.

3. How fast was the fastest horse who ever ran in the race?
Secretariat, who won in 1973, finished the race in 1.59 2/3 seconds and holds the record to this day.

4. How much money is at stake?
The purse amount for the race this year is $2 million.

5. Does that mean the winning horse and rider get $2 million?
Not at all. The “purse distribution” is the total amount paid out to the owners of the horses. This year, the distribution is as follows:

Winner (62%) — $=k8,[pi-=1.24 million
Second (20%) — $400,000
Third (10%) — $200,000
Fourth (5%) — $100,000
Fifth (3%) — $60,000

6. Wait. What about the jockeys?
The winning jockeys take a percentage of the owner’s portion of the purse (about 10%).

Kentucky Derby

7. What are the names of the horses in the race in 2016?
Some of the more creative names include Danzing Candy, Trojan Nation, Suddenbreakingnews, Oscar Nominated, Mor Spirit and Exaggerator. The favorite this year has one of the more understated monikers in the race, Nyquist (so-named because of the owner’s love for the Detroit Redwings player, Gustav Nyquist).

8. Why do the horses have such funny names?
It turns out naming your racehorse is no simple task. The Jockey Club (the organization where owners must register their horses) has an elaborate set of rules to adhere to and doesn’t hesitate to reject horses whose names are out of line. At the moment, names can be no longer than 18 letters, cannot take on a famous person’s name unless the celebrity in question approves, and cannot have been used at any time in the past by any other registered horse. Names cannot include profanity or vulgarity (though cheekiness and a bit of the risqué are expected, if not encouraged). Weird names look fun in print and at off track betting establishments, so again, not so surprising. Names have not always been so colorful. One early Belmont Stakes race winner was named Eric. Nothing more. Just Eric. How times have changed!

9. What’s up with the elaborate hats on ladies attending the race?
The founder of the Kentucky Derby modeled the race after European horse races like the Royal Ascot in London (immortalized famously on film in “My Fair Lady.”). In 1875, the formal dress of the time certainly included headwear for women in both England and the United States so it makes sense historically. The tradition has lingered at the Derby, where ladies from all over the States have the chance to channel their inner southern belles. Hat styles veer toward the refined in the seated areas, while general admission attendees tend to come up with the more expressive (ahem!) versions.

Churchill Downs

10. What’s so special about the Kentucky Derby?
A lot if you run in horse racing circles or live in the south. Heck, most Americans have a sense of pride about the race, even if they don’t know many of the finer details. To begin with, the Kentucky Derby kicks off the Triple Crown season. The Triple Crown is made up of three races: The Derby, The Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. Unlike the Belmont Stakes or the Preakness (which both took hiatuses in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s respectively), the Kentucky Derby has commenced every year since it’s inception in 1875. So there is a lot of history, pomp, circumstance and genuine excitement surrounding the event.

11. I want to attend but this fuss for just one two-minute race?
Well, yes and no. Of course, the race is the crowning moment and what everyone comes to town to see, but the lead up to the race itself is a massive Louisville event that runs for two weeks leading up to the big day called (naturally) the Kentucky Derby Festival.

12. What sorts of things can you expect to do at the Kentucky Derby Festival?
So much! The Derby Festival is a screamin’ deal and fun for the whole family! All Derby Festival event admission tickets are either free or come as part of a sweet package – pay for a $5 Pegasus souvenir pin, and that gets you into any event for the entirety of the 2 weeks. These pins can be found at your local Kroger’s (or thousands of other retailers), and are also eligible for cash sweepstakes and grand prizes. There’s even a free concert – this year’s headliner is the band the Cold War Kids. Here are a few other highlights:

Thunder Over Lousiville

Thunder Over Louisville
Half a million people turn out every year for the opening ceremony of the Kentucky Derby Festival which kicks off in downtown Louisville on the waterfront along the Ohio River. So named for the 30 minutes of thundering fireworks on and over the George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge (more informally known as the Second Street Bridge), the Thunder Over Louisville is accompanied by recorded music played by the Louisville Orchestra from a bevy of classical composers like Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky as well as some traditional, pop standards. Arrive early to get a good perch. Free admission and parking. This event is not to be missed.

Balloon Glimmer & Race
The intriguingly named “Balloon Glimmer & Race” is essentially a hot air balloon glow festival followed by a race over the Louisville waterfront (though the race was canceled in 2016 for inclement weather). The night before the Great Balloon Race, all the balloons are lit up to “glimmer” at the Kentucky Expo Center waterfront for children of all ages to stroll by and marvel at while consorting with the balloon pilots themselves! There are also carnival rides, food stands, and live music to entertain you if you tire of the main event. Free admission with Pegasus Pin.

Pegasus Parade
Bring the little ones and the grandparents to the Pegasus Parade, which year after year attracts some of the nation’s finest marching bans. You’ll see extravagant floats, inflatable characters and a smorgasbord of equestrian units as well as a few international celebrities (Muhammad Ali, Loretta Lynn and Captain Kirk himself (William Shatner), have all served as Grand Marshall. More than 90% of the race route is free to the public, so find a spot to hang unless you prefer to pay for fancy rampart seat status.

Louisville is a lovely town year round, but if you’ve had dreams of kicking back for the week at Churchill Downs with your mint julep in hand, we hope we’ve given you the tools to understand the race a bit and come see it for yourself in 2017. Until then, we’ll see you in the winner’s circle. Happy travels!

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