The Kentucky Derby - Southern History and Tradition

With a history spanning nearly a century and a half, a world-famous 14-karat gold trophy topped by an 18-karat gold horse and jockey, tens of thousands of visitors traveling to Kentucky every year to take part in the events associated with the derby, and long-standing traditions such as sipping mint juleps from sterling silver Julep Cups under the iconic Twin Spires, the Kentucky Derby is not only the most prestigious horse race in the United States, but also a significant cultural festival deeply rooted in the Southern tradition and the definition of refined Southern charm.

Oldani Brothers manufactures the Kentucky Derby’s famous pewter and sterling silver mint julep cups, and are proud to continue this tradition in the years to come, including what will be a very significant historical moment, the 150th anniversary of the Kentucky Derby in 2024. 

What is the Kentucky Derby? 

The Kentucky Derby has been held annually on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, United States, since its first race in 1875. The Kentucky Derby is the first leg of the Triple Crown Races for three-year old thoroughbreds, followed by the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes, and of the three, it is the only one to have been run uninterrupted since its 1875 inaugural race.

The Kentucky Derby

As the name suggests, a horse needs to win all three races to win the Triple Crown. As many as 20 three-year old horses can compete in the mile-and-a-quarter Kentucky Derby race, which is also referred to as “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports” or “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” thanks to its approximate duration.

That said, only two horses have ever officially finished the race in under two minutes. The first horse to surpass the two-minute mark was Secretariat, who finished in 1:59:40 in 1973, setting the race record. The second was Monarchos who won the 2021 course in 1:59:97. The Derby is one of the most popular single-day sports events in the world, attracting approximately 150,000 spectators annually. 

History of the Kentucky Derby 

The term 'derby' dates back to the 18th century and is most commonly used to describe a race for three-year-old horses. There are dozens of derbies every year in the United States, but what makes this one special is the location. In fact, the history of horse racing in Louisville, Kentucky, goes back to before Kentucky was admitted to the United States in 1792.

Indeed, from as early as 1783, Louisville city leaders started promoting the construction of racetracks to address problems with open racing in the city. A particularly influential figure in the history of the Derby was Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., grandson of the legendary William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

In 1872, Clark traveled to England visiting the location in Surrey where the Epsom Derby had been run since 1780. He then traveled to France, where a group of racing enthusiasts had founded the French Jockey Club and went on to organize The Grand Prix de Paris, the greatest horse race in France at the time.

Following his meetings with the foremost figures in horse racing in Europe, Clark came back to Kentucky with the idea of forming a jockey club to raise money for races. This is how the Louisville Jockey Club was born, and in 1874 Clark established racing facilities just outside the city, on land owned by his uncles, John and Henry Churchill.

The track, which would soon become known as the Churchill Downs, after his uncles who provided the land, officially opened on May 17, 1875, in front of a crowd estimated at 10,000 people, hosting the first Derby, and Aristrides was the first horse to win the Derby. The initial length of the Derby was one-and-a-half miles, the same distance as the Epsom Derby, and in 1896 changed to its current mile-and-a-quarter. 

Run for the Roses 

Besides the popular nickname "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports”, the Kentucky Derby is also widely known as "The Run for the Roses”. Coined by the sports columnist Bill Corum in 1925, the nickname stems from the blanket of more than 400 red roses that are draped over the winning horse after the race.

The tradition is said to have originated in 1883, when E. Berry Wall, a socialite from New York City, presented roses to the ladies attending a post-Derby party. Clark is said to have attended the event, and this gesture gave him the idea of making the rose the official flower of the race.

The Run for the Roses

The rose garland, now representative for the Kentucky Derby, was first presented in 1896, when the winner of the Derby received a floral arrangement of white and pink roses. The red rose would become the official flower of the Derby in 1904. The garland as it is presented today was first introduced in 1932. Nowadays, it is the Governor of Kentucky who presents the garland of roses and the Kentucky Derby Trophy to the winner. 

Kentucky Derby Trophy design, history, and craftsmanship 

The iconic Kentucky Derby Trophy is the only solid gold trophy that is annually awarded to the winner of a sporting event in the United States. The trophy has been presented since the 50th Kentucky Derby in 1924. It is unclear whether a trophy was presented to the winner of the inaugural Derby in 1875, and evidence shows that trophy presentations were sporadically made in the following years.

In 1924, the president of Churchill Downs, Matt Winn, commissioned a gold trophy for the 50th "Golden Anniversary" of the Kentucky Derby in 1925. The 14-karat gold trophy, designed by artist George L. Graff of Lemon & Son jeweler in Louisville, is an urn 8 inches in diameter with a lid, and stands 22 inches tall and weighs 56 ounces, without its jade base. The trophy is topped with an 18-karat gold horse and rider, features 18-karat gold horseshoe shaped handles and an 18-karat decorative horseshoe on the front.

Kentucky Derby Trophy

Construction of the trophy is estimated to take approximately 2000 hours of labor, and employs various techniques, including the traditional technique of metal spinning to make the urn by shaping a sheet of gold using a variety of cones and bowls, casting, to make the horse and rider that top the trophy, and stamping.

It is worth noting that the Kentucky Derby Trophy is in fact a set of four trophies, the owner receives the gold trophy, while the jockey, the trainer, and the breeder each win a half size replica of the gold trophy made of sterling silver. 

125th anniversary 

Only one notable change has been made to the original design from 1924. To satisfy the racing superstition that if the horseshoe is pointing down all the luck will run out, for the 125th Kentucky Derby in 1999 the officials decided to change the direction of the decorative horseshoe, so that its ends pointed up to keep the luck in, and it has remained this way since. 

150th Anniversary 

Special trophies were made for the special anniversary editions of the Derby, including the 75th Kentucky Derby in 1949, the 100th Derby in 1974, and the 125th Derby in 1999, which featured jeweled embellishments. As 2024 marks the 150th Kentucky Derby, race participants and spectators alike are holding their breaths to see the embellishments that will celebrate this very special edition. 

Traditions associated with the Kentucky Derby and the Iconic Julep Cup

In addition to the horse race itself, several traditions have become emblematic for the Kentucky Derby’s unique atmosphere. The most notable one is the drinking of the iconic mint julep—an iced cocktail made with bourbon, mint, and sugar—which has become the traditional beverage of the race.

Indeed, there are few drinks so iconic that they have inspired their own glass, and the mint julep cup is one of them. Served at the Kentucky Derby the late 1930s,  the sterling silver julep cup the historic beverage comes served in has become synonymous with the event. Tens of thousands of spectators every year sip their mint juleps from ice-frosted sterling silver julep cups.

Pewter Mint Julep Cup

You can get your sterling silver julep glass here in preparation for the next race horse, as a gift for friends and family, or simply to enjoy your favorite iced drink from it, or maybe even to experiment with mixing your own mint julep. However, most Churchill Downs patrons drink their mint juleps from souvenir glasses.

Sports trophies have always been a sought-after symbol of achievement. From the olive wreaths in the original Olympic Games, to the gold medals in the modern Olympic Games made out of at least 1.34% solid gold, the Stanley Cup made of an alloy of silver and nickel, the Vince Lombardi Trophy made of sterling silver, and the FIFA World Cup trophy made of 18-karat gold, besides their monetary value, many would deem these awards priceless thanks to their indisputable level of honorary symbolism. Read more about the most iconic sports trophies of all times here .

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