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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

150 years of the Kentucky Derby

Saturday marks the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby, which has run every year since 1875 on the first Saturday in May. For the uninitiated, here is my annual primer on the Run for the Roses!

Growing up in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, I've watched the Derby all my life. Upon leaving the state, I was surprised to learn that the entire world doesn't shut down on Derby Day. However, it's the closest thing to a national holiday in Kentucky, with TV sets tuned to watch all 14 races at the historic Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville.

Despite having now spent most of my life outside of Kentucky, I still feel a surge of pride when the sporting world turns its attention to my small home state. For those unfamiliar, Kentucky is a gem known for its breathtaking beauty, rolling countryside, and friendly people. Horses and bourbon are two major exports. The lime-rich soil can turn grass blue, which is uniquely beneficial for thoroughbreds – 113 Derby-winning horses were born in Kentucky. It's no wonder Kentucky is affectionately known as the Bluegrass State.

The Derby is considered the "most exciting two minutes in sports," the first and thus most important jewel in the Triple Crown. Triple Crown winners are horses that win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness in Baltimore, and the Belmont outside New York City. Winning the Triple Crown is hard – happening just 13 times in total and only twice since 1979 – American Pharoah (sic) (2015) and Justify (2018).

Will to Win by James L. Crow

The Derby is also known as the “Run for the Roses,” as the winner of the 1 1/4-mile race receives a blanket of over 400 red roses. The Derby always has a vast field, much larger than regular races, with 20 horses. To qualify, 3-year-old thoroughbreds must earn points in designated races in the US, Europe, UAE, or Japan. The final points race occurs not too far away at beautiful Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky (the track depicted in Will to Win that hangs above my home office desk). 

Derby excitement begins early, so make sure to tune in to NBC around 6 pm ET. You'll want to witness the pageantry of riders taking their mounts in the paddock, hear the trumpet call, and listen to the stirring rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home” as the horses make their way to the starting gate.

Only about five or six horses are genuine contenders. While it’s early, oddsmakers have Fierceness the 5-2 Derby favorite, followed by Sierra Leone (3-1) and Catching Freedom (8-1). You’ll notice every horse has a unique name, and there are some funny ones this year (Grand Mo The First, Uncle Heavy, Mystik Dan). Since the horses can only run once, trainers are the superstars of the sport – Steve Asmussen, Brad H. Cox, Kenney McPeek, D. Wayne Lukas, and Todd Pletcher are some of the biggest.

So, who to cheer for on Saturday? As I work on religion-related issues, Hades caught my eye, but he didn't have a chance in H*ll and dropped out. The odds are a helpful guide, but the starting gate matters a lot. More thoroughbreds have won from Post 5 than from any other position. Catalytic (30-1) lucked out with that slot, but I don't think he has enough gas in the tank to win. Derby favorite Catching Freedom (8-1) got Post 4, which should position him well for success.

Some other tips: 

  • Impress your friends with Derby knowledge by noting Aristides won the first race 150 years ago in 1875.

  • Mint juleps are the traditional Derby Day cocktail, crafted from bourbon, simple syrup, and mint. Or, for a non-alcoholic mocktail version, use locally made Ale-8-One.

  • While watching at home, Derby hats and dapper suits are not required but certainly encouraged. 

  • Please stand at the playing of "My Old Kentucky Home" (and this version is cool too).

  • Lastly, don't be embarrassed to cheer for your horse through the television. I believe it helps!


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