Run For the Roses

Victorian Homes

Victorian Homes cover, April 2008

Run for the roses

The Kentucky Derby traces its roots back to Victorian times

By Robyn Davis Sekula

Victorian Homes magazine | April 2008

In May 1875, a letter to The New York Graphic written by Mrs. Christina Johnson Grunder described a new event that was soon to become part of the legacy of sporting events in the U.S. Mrs. Grunder was writing about a horse race she attended in Louisville, Ky., called the Kentucky Derby.

Although the owners of the track had promised ladies who attended that their finest silks and hats would not be damaged by the dirt at the track, alas, it was not to be. This apparently insulted Mrs. Grunder’s Victorian sensibilities. “Tis true the road was watered, but the fervent heat of the sun and the dry soil quickly absorbed the moisture, and the thousands of feet trampling for hours over the same line of march defied the best efforts to prevent clouds of suffocating dust,” Grunder wrote. “This not only damaged hats, ribbons, flowers, laces, silks, dainty fans and parasols, but it was no uncommon thing to see some of the most celebrated beauties with spots of dust, which had drifted through the vale, resting lovingly and securely upon a tip-tilted nose and each fair cheek.”

Despite Mrs. Grunder’s assessment, the Kentucky Derby went on again the next year, and has gone on every year since, making it the oldest continually run sporting event in the U.S., according to Jay Ferguson, Curator of Museum Advancement at the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville.

The race born in the heart of Victorian America has helped to establish Kentucky’s reputation as the center of the Thoroughbred industry. That first Derby had some 10,000 people in attendance, (the first Derby actually had 15 entrants, in later years the numbers dropped down) and 15 horses in the running, Ferguson says. It has grown exponentially since then, with 20 horses in the running each year in modern times and some 150,000 people typically in attendance on that first Saturday in May.

From its first running on May 17, 1875, the Kentucky Derby was always designed to be one of the preeminent events in horse racing. Col. M. Lewis Clark, the grandson of famous explorer  William Clark, was sent to Europe on behalf of the Louisville Jockey Club to study horseracing and came back with the idea of holding a special event each May that would promote Kentucky as the capital of horse racing.

The Kentucky Derby was one of three named races that took place that first May, the others being the Kentucky Oaks and the Clark Handicap, all of which are still run today. The Kentucky Oaks race now takes place the day before the Derby on a Friday, and involves only three-year-old phillies; the Clark is run in the fall.

The Derby’s winning prize that first Derby wasn’t a trophy. It was a cash prize of $2,850. Ferguson says published historical reports indicate that as more wealthy families entered horses in the Derby, the cash prize became less significant, and instead, owners of winning horses wanted something to display that indicated they had won the Derby. The first trophy was handed out in 1922, which was a 14-carat gold set that included a loving cup, a pair of candlesticks and a pair of plates. The location of that trophy isn’t known; Ferguson says he has spoken to grandchildren of the winning owner, neither of whom knew anything about it. A trophy is still given out in modern times, along with a guaranteed minimum gross of $2 million. The Derby Museum owns six original trophies and a few replicas.

Though the Derby was a well-known race, it wasn’t until 1902, when Col. Matt Winn was hired as general manager, that the Derby began to really catch national and international attention. Winn is largely credited with making the Derby what it is today. He used his connections to bring starlets and celebrities to the Derby, and brought radio to the track to broadcast the races as the horses ran. When prohibition and anti-gambling laws hit communities throughout the U.S. in the 1920s, Winn found a loophole in Louisville city laws that would allow the track to keep operating, while most others were closed down.

Even in 1945, as World War II raged on, the Kentucky Derby was still held, though it took place in June rather than its traditional May date. In 1949, Winn arranged for the first telecast of the Derby. He died that same year while still serving in his role leading the Downs.

Part of what has continued to spark public interest in the Derby is the drama of the event. Donerail won in 1913, the longest shot in Derby history with odds of 91 to 1, meaning that a $2 bet paid $184.90. The first philly, Regret, won in 1915, and in 1919, Sir Barton won the Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. Today winning all three is called the Triple Crown. Streaks of unusual wins tend to excite public interest, Ferguson says.

In the 1970s, three horses won the Triple Crown, Secretariat in 1973, Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978, but the sport hasn’t seen another Triple Crown winner since, though six horses from 1997 to present have won two of the three races necessary to take the Triple Crown title. Those near misses and the long tradition of the Derby have continued to build the public interest. “It’s become part of the American mystique because it has a specific name and it is run at a specific time,” Ferguson says. “It is here in Kentucky and Kentucky is the home of the Thoroughbred industry. The Derby has earned its place in the hearts of Americans by enduring through so much, and bringing us so many legendary sporting figures to cheer for.”

The Kentucky Derby Museum is located in Louisville, Ky., at the historic Churchill Downs racetrack. The museum is open Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the days of the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby races. Admission is $10 for adults and $9 for seniors. For more information, visit, or call (502) 637-7097. The museum is handicap accessible.

It’s tradition

Hats, mint juleps and roses are a few of the traditions that endure at the Derby

The Kentucky Derby is full of traditions, from drinking Mint Juleps to a garland of roses for the winning horse. Here’s a snapshot of a few of the best-loved traditions in the run for the roses:

 --- Wearing hats. The very first running of the Kentucky Derby brought women to track in elaborate hats, according to historical accounts. It’s hard to say exactly how hats have stayed in style for Derby long after they’ve fallen out of daily fashion, says Jay Ferguson, curator of museum advancement at the Kentucky Derby Museum. Books and research on the Derby haven’t brought out much information, but it appears that Derby hats enjoyed a resurgence of interest in the 1960s. Today’s hats are often outlandish and whimsical, adding to the fun spirit of the day.

--- Mint Juleps. For at least 100 years, horse racing patrons have consumed Mint Juleps while watching the races at the track on Derby Day. More than 120,000 Mint Julep cocktails are served during the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby races. The cocktail calls for two ounces Early Times, one tablespoon of simple syrup, fresh mint sprigs and crushed ice.

--- Roses for the winning horse. The first published account of roses being presented to the winning horse was in 1896, when winning horse Ben Brush was presented with a collar of roses in hues of pink and white. The first standardized garland of roses, draped over the winning horse, was presented in the 1930s, Ferguson says.