Like the Super Bowl and the Olympic Games, the Grade I Kentucky Derby is the rare sporting event which transcends the athletic feats in question. It is an opportunity to gather with friends and family, dress in finery, enjoy drinks, and place bets. The Kentucky Derby is notable in that it draws in spectators and viewers who typically do not follow horse racing.
It takes place at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, and has run every year since 1875. Generally known as “the Run for the Roses” and “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports,” the Derby is for male or female three year olds.
The race goes for 1 ¼ miles (or 10 furlongs) on Churchill Downs’ one-mile dirt track. Colts and geldings carry 126 pounds; fillies, 121 pounds. While some fillies have won the Kentucky Derby, the winner’s blanket, made of roses, most often goes to a colt despite the distaff weight advantage. The winner also receives a trophy, usually awarded by the Governor of Kentucky.
National television coverage lasts for hours before the race itself, and viewers tune in for such time-honored traditions as the grand call to post and singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” as much as for the action on the track. Traditions set at the Kentucky Derby—women wearing lavish hats, signature alcoholic drinks, high fashion statements, and use of an “official flower”—have seeped over into other significant races.
The most notable of these include the Kentucky Oaks, a race for fillies run the day before the Kentucky Derby, and the two other jewels in the Triple Crown, which is winning the combination of the Derby, the Grade I Preakness Stakes held at Pimlico Race Course, and the Grade I Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park.
If a colt or filly wins the Kentucky Derby, speculation immediately begins as to whether he or she is a potential contender for the Triple Crown. So far, only thirteen horses have managed the feat, which is exceedingly difficult due to the large field of the Derby, the rapid recovery required for the Preakness, and the long distance of the Belmont.
If the winner of the Kentucky Derby goes on to run the next leg, the Preakness, he or she is awarded a special stall on the backstretch at Pimlico. After a long drought which lasted over 30 years, American Phaorah won the Triple Crown in 2015, followed by Justify in 2018. This great accomplishment is impossible, however, without first leaving Louisville with a win.
2021 Kentucky Derby
Plans for the 2021 Kentucky Derby are projected to consist of a conglomeration of Kentucky Derby Festival events which were cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Churchill Downs is currently allowing patrons to submit ticket information requests online in the hopes that spectators will be allowed to attend in person.
Since the Derby always takes place on the first Saturday in May, the 2021 Kentucky Derby will take place as soon as it possibly can by the calendar. It is scheduled for May 1, 2021.
Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Derby Racetrack of 2021
Churchill Downs, with its two spires towering over its open-once-a-year infield, is the home and origin point of the Kentucky Derby. It was inaugurated in 1875, and the names of Derby winners ring the paddock. A mural featuring each winning jockey has been added, as well.
It features a 7/8 mile turf track, which is rimmed by a mile-long dirt track. Home to the Kentucky Derby Museum as well as three meets a year, Churchill Downs was named for Samuel Churchill and his prominent Kentucky family. It covers 147 acres and features a massive pari-mutuel video board to feed information to gamblers. The Breeders’ Cup World Championship has visited Churchill Downs nine times.
Understanding the Kentucky Derby
The Derby is especially cherished in American culture because it signals the beginning of spring, embodies hope as the first Triple Crown race, and invites participants to enjoy themselves in themed celebrations. Certain aspects of “Derby Parties,” which mimic the atmosphere of Churchill Downs, demand that guests drink mint juleps, a Kentucky-centric Southern drink consisting of Kentucky bourbon, sugar syrup, and a sprig of mint.
Network coverage tends to bounce back and forth between the general melee of the “cheap seats” on the Churchill Downs infield, where any amount of wild merrymaking takes place, and the more sedate, highly fashionable, and much more expensive action on “Millionaire’s Row,” the box seats in the grandstand.
In recent years, a new tradition has sprung up around “the walkover,” when trainers and owners proceed with their families from the backstretch to the paddock area to begin the saddling process. Large attachments of the horse’s connections now tend to join in the walkover, and sportscasters often scramble for last-minute interviews.
Every jockey in the race participates in a group photo to commemorate the running, and the winner’s blanket is solemnly carried to the Churchill Downs’ cupola. Just to carry the blanket has become a matter of honor, in addition to the call for “riders up,” which is traditionally done by the paddock judge. Since 2012, the call has been made by a celebrity, representative, or official.
The Kentucky Derby is now so entrenched in the culture of Louisville that over two weeks of celebration surrounds the race in what’s generally known as the Kentucky Derby Festival. Even the post draw is a massive media event which is televised and streamed live. Concerts, an air show, street parties, balls, charity fundraisers, parades, a steamboat race, fireworks displays, art contests, poker tournaments, marathons, and even a robot battle and spelling bee are just a few forms of the celebrations stuffing the Derby Festival.
Hotel rooms in Louisville are difficult to come by during the Derby Festival, and traffic in the relatively small city increasingly becomes such a tangle that some residents simply leave for its duration.
Kentucky Derby Qualifiers and Why They Matter
Gaining entrance into America’s most famous horse race isn’t easy. It’s the dream of every Thoroughbred owner who breeds “the best to the best” and watches a foal enter the world and the goal of any trainer perusing the latest stock at sales. With the best in the industry focusing on the same goal, planning, good luck, and a speedy little filly or colt are required.
Strategy for the Churchill Downs racetrack is merely the last step in a tactic-filled obstacle course through a foal’s two-year-old and three-year-old seasons. An ambitious trainer and owner team will begin to navigate the young one through it as early as its weanling days, when evaluations of the foal’s trainability, soundness, and speed begin.
While some colts and fillies can gather enough points to earn a Derby berth in as little as three races, others must carefully pick their way through the graded stakes of North America in order to earn a berth. Horses in Japan and Europe have their own “Road to the Kentucky Derby” system.
The process of entering the gate in the Kentucky Derby is a complex one which is based on points gathered in graded stakes races. Twenty positions are available for the Derby, which is an enormous amount for American flat racing, but simply running in the Kentucky Derby is such a prestigious resume enhancer that Churchill Downs used an auxiliary gate for many years in order to accommodate the large field.
Officially known as “The Road to the Kentucky Derby,” the system works in two phases which begins with the Kentucky Derby prep season when the colts and fillies are two in the fall before the Derby in question. Early the following spring, the Kentucky Derby Championship Series begins.
Over 40 races are involved with the Road series, and they include such prestigious races as the Grade 1 Florida Derby, the Grade I Santa Anita Derby, and the Grade II Blue Grass Stakes at Kentucky’s Keeneland Racecourse. Owners must pay nomination, entry, and finally starter fees to guarantee their three year old’s place in the gate.
Kentucky Derby History
Although it has long since exceeded being “just a horse race,” the Kentucky Derby began the year its host track, Churchill Downs, opened in 1875. It was inspired by Co. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., who founded the Louisville Jockey Club to raise the money to build Churchill Downs.
Clark’s experiences with French and British Thoroughbred racing, particularly in Epsom, which had been hosting a derby since the 1700s, informed his plans for Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby, as well as its sister race for fillies, the Kentucky Oaks. Having also helped to found the august Grand Prix de Paris at Longchamp, Clark knew how to attract big money and bigger betters.
Despite the Great Depression and both World Wars, the race has run every year since. Its first winner was Aristides in a race that covered a mile and half, which was the Derby’s distance for several years until it was shortened to the modern 1 ¼ mile in 1896.
Kentucky Derby Historic Races
Historic races include the years a filly has won. This includes Regret (1915), Genuine Risk (1980), and Winning Colors (1988). It’s a rare feat since the prep race circuit tends to be grueling and most talented fillies are pointed toward the Derby’s distaff race, the Kentucky Oaks.
The great Triple Crown winner Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby in 1:59.40 in 1973, a record which still stands.
Kentucky Derby Greatest Upsets
Donerail won in 1913 at 91-1 odds, still to date the Derby’s greatest upset. And Country House went off at 65-1 in a controversial win which involved taking down a faster horse, Maximum Security, who interfered with the field.
Mine That Bird, with Calvin Borel giving a masterful ride, won at 50-1 odds in 2009. Interestingly, the father of eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh also ran in the 2009 Derby.
“SHOCK-OMO!” read one of the headlines when another 50-1 shot, Giacomo, won the 2005 Kentucky Derby. He came in from the 18 gate, which was far out from the rail and a difficult placement to overcome.
2020 Kentucky Derby Review
As with the Kentucky Oaks, the Belmont Stakes, and the Preakness Stakes, the Kentucky Derby was deeply jarred from its traditional form and place on the calendar by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it usually takes place on the first Saturday in May, the 146th running of the Kentucky Derby ran on September 5, 2020.
Although the Derby is typically the first jewel of the Triple Crown, in 2020 it was preceded by a shortened Belmont Stakes (June 20) and followed by the Preakness Stakes (October 4). The race ran before an empty grandstand and infield with only owners, trainers, jockeys, and essential employees in attendance.
The 2020 Derby marked the first time a new starting gate which could accommodate all entrance was used. It also saw a sixth win for legendary trainer Bob Baffert, who evened a record set by trainer Ken Jones in 1952. Baffert’s other starter, Thousand Words, flipped in the paddock, breaking the wrist of assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes.
Here is the order of finish for the 2020 Kentucky Derby:
2) Tiz the Law
3) Mr. Big News
4) Honor A.P.
5) Max Player
6) Storm the Court
8) Ny Traffic
9) Necker Island
10) Major Fed
11) Sole Volante
12) Winning Impression
13) Money Moves
14) Attachment Rate
15) South Bend
While the favorite was Tiz the Law, he faded to finish second. Authentic went off at 8-1 odds. Several colts scratched in the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby due to a variety of injuries, leaving five empty spaces in the starting gate.
Final Thoughts on the Kentucky Derby
“The Kentucky Derby is decadent and depraved,” wrote Hunter S. Thompson in 1970, and he wasn’t wrong. While Thompson was speaking of the wild celebrations accompanying the event, the race itself serves as both a time marker and a measure of where the sport and the nation are standing. The history of the Kentucky Derby is the history of America.