The Kentucky Derby is steeped in 141 years of tradition, much of it booze and hat related. So much tradition surrounds the Derby that the race itself might have become secondary to the ceremony if spectators didn’t have tens of millions of dollars riding on the outcome. So, what traditions lure racing fans away from the track?
The Mint Julep. One of the few things every American knows about The Kentucky Derby is that the official drink of the race is the bourbon and sugar concoction known as the mint julep. (See our recipe.) A proper julep is served in a silver or pewter cup, but these were only introduced at the Derby in 1950. Metal cups first replaced glass in the ‘40s due to concern about broken glass on the racetrack, but today, most of the 150,000 spectators at the Derby imbibe their mint juleps from glass cups, those of the commemorative variety. Some julep enthusiasts pony up $1,000 to swill a ridiculously artisanal julep—the ice is from an Alaskan iceberg—from a Tiffany-designed silver julep cup. The proceeds of the $1,000 mint juleps go to a diabetes and obesity charity, which is good, because it’s all too possible to become penniless and diabetic after wagering on the wrong horse and drinking too many mint juleps. However, anything that causes greater awareness and consumption of bourbon is ultimately a good thing for America.
The standard mint juleps look like this…
While the $1,000 ones look like this….
Burgoo. Burgoo is the traditional food of the Derby, and like egg nog, matzo, and Christmas pudding, is one of those foods that wouldn’t excite anyone had it not managed to be associated with an annual tradition. With burgoo, this isn’t because it’s necessarily bad, but because it’s not distinctive enough—burgoo is any spicy stew featuring whatever meat happens to be lying around, combined with vegetables such as okra and corn.
Recipes vary wildly from restaurant to restaurant but usually contain any combination of pork, mutton, chicken and beef. Some Kentuckians will tell you that real burgoo is traditionally made from varmint, but few Derby spectators will find themselves eating squirrel or assorted roadkill. Derby Pie, containing chocolate and walnuts, is a more reliable traditional dish.
Hats. Derby founder Colonel Merriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. modeled the Kentucky Derby after tony horse races in Paris and England at which society types dressed up for one another (he was the grandson of that Clark, named after that Lewis), and fashion has always been important for Derby-goers, particularly to those into ridiculous hats. During the Kentucky Oaks, a race for fillies that is held the day before the Derby—now known as Ladies Day—women in Louisville are given a second opportunity to show off their millinery and one can see as many fashion risks here as at the Derby itself. In some ways the Derby is the ideal sporting event for the fashionista: dressing up is strongly encouraged, the actual event only takes two minutes and involves horses, the race has a signature cocktail, and there is a better-than-average chance of meeting a well-dressed, drunk plutocrat or oligarch.
Celebrities. The Derby has always attracted the well-heeled and well-known, many of whom sit in Millionaires Row. Although the Derby gets its share of royalty—Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip attended in 2007, and oil-rich sheiks commonly own competing horses—it’s the hard-partiers and scenesters who usually steal some of the spotlight. In1878, Clark hosted an annual pre-race party at which the guest of honor was invited to take the first sip of a giant mint julep. In true Derby spirit, Polish actress Helena Modjeska decided to drink the whole thing herself, telling the help to mix another for her husband, a man who pretended to be a Polish count.
Ceremony. Before the Derby begins, the University of Louisville marching band plays “My Old Kentucky Home.” The governor of Kentucky presents the winning jockey with a bouquet of 60 roses (this is why the race is known as “The Run for the Roses”). The winner also receives a 22-inch-tall, solid gold trophy, so the value isn’t entirely symbolic (although Kentucky Derby trophies are probably pawned and sold less often than its less-valuable cousins, Academy Awards and Super Bowl rings). A newer tradition at the Derby involves its name. Since 2006, the race has officially been called the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. Yum! Brands is the parent company of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken.