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Kentucky Derby Traditions 

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The Kentucky Derby: the most exciting two minutes in sports! However, for fans of this race, this is more than just two minutes. It is a month-long festival celebrating spring, otherwise known as the Kentucky Derby Festival. Marathons, boat races, parades, hot air balloons and more make up this time prior to the official derby day (which is always held on the first Saturday in May). The Kentucky Derby marks the end of the festival where traditions galore fill Churchill Downs to see who is the fastest 3-year-old horse. These traditions hold a special place in the hearts of fans. Here are some of the things you might see while watching the race.  

Wait…before you start reading, we should sing the anthem that has been sung before the race since 1921! 

My Old Kentucky Home 

The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,
Tis summer, the people are gay;
The corn-top’s ripe and the meadow’s in the bloom
While the birds make music all the day.
The young folks roll on the little cabin floor
All merry, all happy and bright;
By’n by hard times comes a knocking at the door
Then my old Kentucky home, Good-night!
Weep no more my lady.
Oh! Weep no more today!
We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home
For the old Kentucky home, far away. 

Now we can begin with my favorite traditions:  

Mint Juleps: This mix of simple syrup, bourbon, mint leaves and crushed ice sounds blah, at least for someone who doesn’t possess the acquired taste of sugary-mint bourbon drinks. However, you will see most everyone drinking one at the Kentucky Derby. It has been the official drink since 1938. While there is no explanation as to why it is the official drink, you can guarantee there will be about 120,000 served within the Friday and Saturday of race week. They can cost as little as $11 or a whopping $2500 if you choose to have it served in a gold-plated glass with a silver straw. These are only sold in advance so obviously my excuse for not getting one is that I forgot to preorder it.  

Hats: Ah yes, the hats! Comparable only to a royal wedding in England. Hats were part of the chic dress that was required by women in the early years of the race. It was common for upper-class women to show off the latest styles in the spring by coordinating their dresses with their handbags, parasols, shoes and of course hats. Since upper-class folk were the target audience for this highfalutin event, the dress code of the time came along with them. Although, the extravagance of the hats did not become the focus until the 1960’s when television gave women a reason to stand out thus nudging them towards more elaborate and eccentric designs. You go girls! I don’t know about you, but I’m a seersucker for a cool hat!  

Twin Spires: The Twin Spires are the symbol of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby. I suppose this isn’t so much of a tradition as it is a landmark and part of the must-see scenery; something of a photo op. They’re on the historical registrar in Kentucky and they are over 100 years old. Joseph Dominic Baldez, the architect of the spires, gave no reason for their design and they otherwise serve no purpose than that of a visual figure. However, they’ve somehow, over the years become a necessary part of the race to gawk at or SnapChat to a friend 

Garland of Roses: No horse wants a garland of roses around their neck, but the winner of this race is getting one anyways. Why? Because in 1896, the derby winner was awarded with a floral arrangement of roses. This led to the rose being the official flower of the Kentucky Derby. Later on, the term “Run for the Roses” was coined as the derby’s nickname and there was no going back. Four hundred red roses are sewn onto a satin cloth then draped over the winner. It is interesting to note that the maker of the current Garland of Roses is the Kroger Company. So, while out getting your milk and bread, perhaps stop by and check out the garland wreath…they do construct it in a local Kentucky store (except this year because of Covid)  


Lindsay is a Youth Services Librarian at the Main Library who enjoys reading juvenile fiction, cozy mysteries and cookbooks with pictures. She adores her best friend, Simon, a shar-pei/basset hound and tries to get him involved in her programs when possible. Traveling, tattoos and trying new foods are some of her interests as well as crafting and delving into other cultures.