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If there is any race that symbolizes horse racing so thoroughly, it is the Kentucky Derby. The race is the first leg on the journey to the Triple Crown. The derby is the oldest continuously held sporting event in the United States. The one and a quarter mile race is called the most exciting two minutes in sports. Twenty three-year-old thoroughbred horses vie for the blanket of roses draped over the winner and the chance to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, the other two legs of the journey to the Triple Crown. This year approximately 155,000 horse racing aficionados will gather at Churchill Downs to witness the 143rd Run for the Roses.
While the race draws fans of all statures, the elite watch the race from “Millionaire’s Row”, lavish box seats where the view is much better than the infield. Women wear outfits topped with large and elaborate hats. Haute couture is the uniform of the day and the elaborate hats are the artistry of some of the world’s most noted milliners.
Millionaire’s Row is a place where fortunes are won and lost in a scant 120 seconds. The purse is a cool $2,000,000 and 1st place draws $1,425,000. A fortune can be made by the owner if his three-year-old earns the coveted blanket of roses.
The mint julep is the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. The spectators in the infield sip theirs in souvenir glasses for that year’s race. You’ll be sipping yours from an ice frosted silver julep cup. A local favorite served at the Kentucky Derby is a stew made of chicken, pork and vegetables called burgoo.
While many luminaries attend the race, the derby reached new heights in 2007 when Queen Elizabeth II took part in the festivities. VIPs are ushered in via a special red carpet entrance. Queen Elizabeth was preceded by her uncle, the Duke of Windsor in 1951 and her sister, Princess Margaret in 1974. Presidents Truman, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and George H. W. Bush have attended the Kentucky Derby as well. Babe Ruth, Mohammed Ali and Bob Hope have visited. George Steinbrenner and Steven Spielberg had horses run in the derby. Sometimes the stars come out during the day.
Only twelve horses have won the Kentucky Derby and went on to win the Triple Crown. Sir Barton was the first in 1919, followed by Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948) Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), and American Pharoah in 2015. Secretariat set a track record that is still unbroken and gave even quicker times in the Preakness and the Belmont stakes.
Churchill Downs is so famous that its noted twin spires were featured on Kentucky’s state quarter when it was issued. Designed by draftsman Joseph Dominic Baldez, The original plans called for a simple grandstand. Baldez felt the grandstand needed something more. He added the Twin Spires. Erected in 1895, the grandstand is the symbol of the derby and arguably the most recognized building in Kentucky. Then president of Churchill Downs, Matt Winn commented; “Joe, when you die there is one monument that will never be taken down, the Twin Spires.”
The horses are led out to the track to the strains of Stephen Collins Foster’s My Old Kentucky Home played by the University of Louisville Marching Band. The tradition dates to 1930 and the University of Louisville Marching Band has played the anthem since 1936 in all but a few openings. The gate opens and two minutes later you look at your picks. You won! This is Derby Fever and you can catch it Saturday, May 6. The Run for the Roses is an American legacy. Will you be there?