Surprising Facts About the Kentucky Derby
Horse racing in Kentucky began as early as 1783
The history of breeding and racing horses in Kentucky is more than two centuries long, dating back to the time of the American Revolution. Among the men who helped organize the first “official” track was Henry Clay, a member of Kentucky’s first jockey club. But even without official courses, racing in the Derby’s hometown of Louisville dates back to a regular race held on Market Street as early as 1783. No word yet on whether mint juleps were served, but the answer is almost certainly.
The Derby is designed after the Epsom Derby, England’s fanciest horse race
The impetus for the most famous horse race on American soil came in 1872, when Meriwether Lewis Clark -- grandson of the famous explorer -- traveled to Europe and witnessed the Epsom Derby. Run since 1780, the race was the most prestigious in the world, eliciting visits from the royal family and becoming known as the most lucrative betting event of the year. In deference to the Kentucky heat, the elaborate felt top hats and morning suits of the aristocracy at Epsom were replaced by straw boaters and seersucker, setting up generations of attention-seekers for one of the most intense peacock displays of the year.
More than 400 roses go into the winner’s garland
The rose garland has been one of the official symbols of the Derby since 1896, when winning jockey Ben Brush was given a floral arrangement of white and red roses. The current pattern is made up of approximately 400 red roses (the official flower of the Derby since 1904) sewn onto a green satin back piece and draped over the winner. One can only assume that between the scent of the horse and the scent of the jockey after a race in the southern heat, the roses are just as much for the assembled big wigs in the winner’s circle as for the self-esteem of the jockey.
The biggest underdog to ever win the Derby was a 91/1 shot
In 1913, the Kentucky Derby had its first big upset when the field’s absolute underdog, a horse called Donerail, bested the entire field and upset a whole lot of people’s exactas. Running at an astronomical 91/1, the horse asserted itself in the final sixteenth-mile for a win over favorite Ten Point. The $2 win payoff of $184.90 is a Derby record to this day. Ridden by Louisville’s own impeccably named Roscoe Goose, Donerail kept it slow and steady until the home stretch, when his relatively green legs carried him past horses with thousands more dollars on them.
The youngest jockey to ever win the derby was only 15
Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton was just 15 when he raced his way into the sports pages. Not even old enough to drive a car, he successfully rode Azra at Churchill Downs to become the youngest Derby winner in history after two full years of professional competition. Not bad for a kid whose father, a talented carpenter, had only been freed from slavery 10 years before Lonnie's birth.
475,000 lbs of crushed ice will be used at the Derby
For frozen drinks like juleps and bourbon slushes alone, crushed ice is a crucial part of the Derby experience, and running out is simply not an option. Infusing the drink with water and allowing flavors to meld more uniformly than ice cubes, crushed ice is also more of a process to make. Some bars use blenders, but the heat from the machine can cause over dilution of your drink -- a cardinal sin. Others use Ziploc bags and raw force, whacking the ice-filled bags like mice they just found on a glue trap by the boiler. No matter how the crushing is achieved, one thing is for certain: Churchill Downs staff are going to be crushing tons of it.