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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Kentucky Derby

Held annually at the historic Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville, the Kentucky Derby runs on the first Saturday of May. As a proud Kentuckian, I am always filled with a sense of pride when the world focuses on my home state. Known as the "Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports," the Derby represents the pinnacle of horseracing, a sport often associated with royalty. So if you plan to watch, tune in early to NBC around 6 pm EST. You'll catch the riders taking mounts in the paddock, watch the stirring rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home" as the horses make their way to the starting gate, and hear the bugle call signaling the start of the race.

The fastest time ever recorded in the Kentucky Derby was set by Secretariat 50 years ago in 1973. He completed the 1 1/4-mile race in a blazing 1 minute and 59 seconds, coming from behind to win down the stretch. Considered the greatest racehorse ever, I had the opportunity to meet him as a youth when my school group visited Claiborne Farm outside of Lexington in Paris, Kentucky. Nicknamed "Big Red" for his reddish-brown color, Secretariat was gentle enough that we could pet him (most thoroughbreds are so high-strung you wouldn't want to get close). The Washington Post had a good article about Secretariat worth reading.

Some additional information to help you speak knowledgeably about the race:

  • The Kentucky Derby is the longest-running sporting event in the United States, held annually since 1875 (even during COVID).

  • In what is believed as a snub dating back to our independence from Great Britain, all horseraces in the United States run counterclockwise, unlike races in England that run clockwise.

  • The Kentucky Derby is called the "Run for the Roses" because the winner is draped in a blanket of over 400 red roses.

  • Only three-year-old horses run in the Derby, making it, per Dan Fogelberg, “a chance of a lifetime, in a lifetime of chance.”

  • The Derby is the first 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 – there have only been two winners since 1979 -- American Pharoah (sic) (2015) and Justify (2018).

  • The mint julep is the traditional drink of the Kentucky Derby, with over 120,000 purchased every year. If you want an authentic mocktail, use the locally-produced soft drink Ale-8-One.


  • The Derby always has a vast field, much larger than regular races, with 20+ horses. However, only about the top five or six are genuine contenders.

  • No two thoroughbreds can have the same name, which adds to the entertainment.

  • Trainers are the superstars of the sport. Todd Pletcher, who won the Derby in 2010 and 2017, has entered three horses again this year. But unlike in years past, all three (Forte, Tapit Trice, and Kingsbarns) are all contenders.

So who to cheer for on Saturday? Tapit Trice drew the number 5 starting gate, the slot with the highest winning percentage next to the number 10 gate. However, with King Charles' coronation happening earlier that day, I'm looking closely at undefeated Kingsbarns. Or, considering my work on religion issues, longshot Reincarnate might be an excellent thematic option.

Some other tips:

  • 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."

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

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