On May 17th, 1875, history was made when the first Kentucky Derby race was run. In front of a crowd of approximately 10,000 fans, 15 three-year-old Thoroughbreds raced for one and a half miles on a fast track at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.
Today, the traditions stand: sipping a mint julep, donning a beautiful hat and singing “My Old Kentucky Home.” The Kentucky Derby is the longest running sporting event in the U.S. It’s considered “the most exciting two minutes in sports.”
1. Fight for the Finish
It’s common for two horses to fight to the finish line but not for the jockeys to join in. In the 1938 Derby, that’s exactly what happened. Don Meade with Brokers Tip and Herb Fisher with Head Play grabbed each other’s arms and whips down the home stretch. Their tussle led to a 30-day suspension for both jockeys. Brokers Tip won the race, but the extracurricular activities of Meade and Fisher was what made it a memorable race.
2. Standing Man
We’re always warned not to celebrate too soon. However, that’s exactly what legendary jockey Willie Shoemaker, aboard English-bred Gallant Man, did in the 1957 Derby. Shoemaker mistook the 16th pole for the finish line and momentarily stood up in his saddle. Willie Hartack continued to drive 8-1 shot Iron Liege. Shoemaker quickly resumed driving his mount, but Gallant Man was unable to retake the lead. They lost by the thinnest of noses in one of the most controversial derbies ever.
3. Derby’s Fastest Horse
As a two-year-old, Secretariat was named Horse of the Year in 1972. This honor rarely goes to such a young colt. But some doubted his superstar status after he finished third in the Wood Memorial, his last performance before the 1973 Kentucky Derby. Despite the negative performance, Secretariat entered the Derby as a 3-2 favorite. The Michael Jordan of horses trailed last in a field of 13 right out of the gate. However, Secretariat’s pace grew as the race deepened, and he burst into contention in the stretch turn. He won the race by two and a half lengths. Secretariat’s final time of 1:59.40 set a new record, which remains unbroken. To this day, Secretariat is widely considered as the greatest of all Triple Crown ponies.
4. Unbridled Emotions
Unbridled gave his elderly owner, Frances A. Genter, the thrill of a lifetime when he won the 1990 Derby. At 92, Genter was too petite to see over the crowd and couldn’t see the monitors with her failing eyesight. So trainer Carl Nafzger gave her a play-by-play of the race. A relative long shot in the field, Unbridled made his move on the outside and seized command at the top of the stretch. As Unbridled began to draw off, Nafzger embraced Genter. He said, “He’s going to win! Oh, Mrs. Genter, I love you!” The raw emotion of achieving such a lifelong dream is the embodiment of the thrill of horse racing. Watching Nafzger describe the race for Genter is one of the most touching moments in Kentucky Derby history.
5. In Memory
Barbaro was the sixth horse to race in the Kentucky Derby with an undefeated record. Despite a five-week break before the 2006 Kentucky Derby, he was the second favorite with 6-1 odds and decisively won the race. Hopes that he would be the newest Triple Crown winner were crushed when Barbaro shattered his leg in the Preakness Stakes. This eventually led to his death. Barbaro’s will to win on the racetrack and his heroic strength battling his leg injury made him the object of public affection around the world. Barbaro’s owners understood just how special his life was to his millions of fans. So they had his remains interred at the entrance of Churchill Downs. There, a 1,500-pound, bronze statue was erected to commemorate his Derby victory. Barbaro’s admirers still visit the statue daily.
Mint Julep Fun Facts
1. Over 127,000 Mint Juleps are served over Kentucky Derby Weekend. It takes 7,800 liters of bourbon and 2,250 pounds of locally grown mint.
2. The earliest Juleps didn’t include bourbon or mint, just rum, water and sugar. Mint was added in the 1800s.
3. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that whiskey became the alcohol of choice for a Mint Julep.
4. The Mint Julep began as a city concoction, one of the fancy drinks associated with the great hotel bars of southern cities.
5. The price of an official Kentucky Derby Mint Julep glass in 1875 was $0.38. Last year it was $5.99.