Loran Smith’s Sports Column: The Kentucky Derby

Published 1:38 pm Tuesday, April 23, 2024

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The running of the Kentucky Derby has always gotten my

attention—long before I had an opportunity to experience the “Run for the

Roses” live and in living color.

I will watch the 149 th running of the Derby Saturday via NBC with

mixed emotions. I won’t have to fight the crowds. There will be no fret

about finding a parking space and no frustration about standing in line to

buy anything or go to the restroom. Television will take care of all that, but

will I ever miss being there to “feel” the electric atmosphere, to witness the

comingling of personalities and cultures, the rich and the modest with the

former bringing about an aurora of nobility.


The Derby is one of the most thrilling and exciting events that

captures worldwide attention. Touted as the “Greatest two minutes in

Sports,” the event is a challenge to adequately describe. Wordsmiths have

been at it since 1875 when the Bluegrass state and the rest of the South

were still recovering from the Civil War.


The Derby traditions are smashing, overwhelming, and linked with the

best in bourbon, thoroughbred racing, and fashion. From mint juleps to


women’s hats, creative and imposing with a flair that would cause Monet to

reach for his palette.

The first time I was at Churchill Downs for this classic sports event

happened in the mid-sixties, and I have been fortunate to return

intermittently. It is a spectacle that has turned heads since 1875.

In 1968, my initial trip to Churchill Downs, the heavy favorite was

Forward Pass, but Dancer’s Image was the upset winner. However, he was

disqualified post-race when phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory drug,

was found in his urine.

There were some upset folks when Forward Pass came in second. I

picked the first three horses in the order of finish: Dancer’s Image, Forward

Pass and Frances Hat, but my two-dollar bets didn’t bring me any windfall.

It was exciting, however, and I couldn’t wait to return to Churchill Downs.

Even in 1875, the Derby was a popular event, drawing an estimated

10,000 people. The Derby was started by Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., who

was the grandson of William Clark. You recognize his name if you read his

biography and associate him with his famous grandfather, William Clark of

Lewis and Clark Expedition fame. The younger Clark had seen horse


racing in Europe and raised the money to build Churchill Downs and

donated the land where the track is built.

The Kentucky Derby is the longest running sporting event in the U. S.

Its importance on the sports calendar has grown into a major colossus

which attached a record attendance of 170,513 in 2015.

Among the many interesting facts about the Derby:

 The trophy which goes to the winner is made of real gold.

 There is an official flower of the Derby and would be easy for any

Derby aficionado to disclose what it is—the red rose. There are

554 roses in the winner’s garland, dating back to 1896. Each rose

represents the renewal of life and endurance required to finish first

in the demanding 1 ¼ mile race.

 The rose garland weighs more than 40 pounds.

 The Derby has an official cocktail—the mint julep.


The official drink came about in 1939. Interestingly, in 1938 officials

of the Derby discovered that race fans were taking the decorated water

glasses home as souvenirs.


More than 120,000 of the cocktails are served each year at the Derby

which means that more than 1,000 pounds of fresh mint is needed to meet

the demand.

With the 14 races scheduled for Derby Day, racing begins at 10:30

a.m. but post-time for the Derby is 6:57 p.m. Whether at Churchill Downs

or sitting in your easy chair before the television set, the hair on your neck

will tingle with excitement when the horses come onto the track and you

hear the Derby anthem, “My Old Kentucky Home.”

That Stephen Foster classic rivals the greatest two minutes in sports.