If you’re looking for an occasion to don your favorite hat and celebrate this weekend, the countdown is on for the biggest day in horse racing of the year.
Steeped in tradition and history, the 138th Kentucky Derby takes place Saturday, May 5, marking the first leg of the annual Triple Crown. Every year, the Churchill Downs race track plays host to horses, celebs, big hats and boozy concoctions for those over 21. The race, known as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” is also called “The Run for the Roses” for the lush blanket of red roses draped over the winner.
About 14.5 million people watched the race in 2011, and 51 percent of them were women. The Derby is “the only annual sporting event that draws more female than male viewers,” NBC Sports reported last year. (Although I think NBC says the same thing about the Olympics).
Past Derby winners such as Secretariat and Barbaro have storied pasts. This year’s top contenders include Dullahan, Union Rags and I’ll Have Another. Alas, there are no fillies running (but there is the annual all filly race at Kentucky Oaks). Make sure to pick up some racing form guides so you can assess each horse’s chances. It’s more fun if you read up on the jockeys and their colorfully named equestrian counterparts in advance of the big day.
Women at the Race Track:
Lots of women look great in elegant hats and pastel linens at the Kentucky Derby. But besides making a fashion statement, women have also played an active role in Kentucky Derby history since the turn of the century.
According the Derby website, in 1904, Mrs. Laska Durnell nominated Elwood to the Kentucky Derby, unbeknownst to her husband, trainer Charles Durnell. The decision was a shrewd one and Elwood became the first starter and winner owned by a woman.
By the 1940s, women owners in the Derby were almost commonplace. In 1942, seven of the first eight finishers in the Kentucky Derby were owned by women.
Besides the role of owner, a total of 14 women trainers have sent starters postward in the Kentucky Derby, most recently Kathy Ritvo and Kathleen O’Connell in 2011. To date, six women have ridden in the famed “Run for the Roses”: Diane Crump, Patti Cooksey, Andrea Seefeldt, Julie Krone, Rosemary Homeister and Rose Napravnik. In 2012, Napravnik is riding Believe You Can in the Kentucky Oaks – as the only female jockey in the race.
Derby Day: A lot of people don’t realize that Derby Day is really no different from any other race day at Churchill Downs, except for the fact that one of the races in the regular schedule is the most watched, and most wagered on horse race in the world. There are 10 races being run before the Kentucky Derby race is ran, and two more races take place after the Derby.
Costume: It’s all about hat-a-tude. Tradition dictates that hats are worn – and Derby hats are usually of the very large and fancy variety. The spectacular fashion often seen at the Derby is not solely a product of modern times; rather, opulent dress has played a large role in the history of the Kentucky Derby. What Colonel M. Lewis Clark Jr., (the founding father of the Kentucky Derby), envisioned was a racing environment that would feel comfortable and luxurious, an event that would remind people of European horse racing. Today, the Kentucky Derby is a chance for every female to express her inner Southern Belle. A distinct flavor of Southern style lends an air of authenticity and if you’re in doubt what to wear, Southern Living has a guide to traditional attire for aspiring Derby dames.
Details: Covering one and one-quarter miles, the race is run the first Saturday of May. Post time is 6:24 p.m. and the forecast in Louisville calls for temperatures in the mid-60s. The official Derby app lets you read up on the pedigree of your favorite horse, use the bet calculator to tinker around with your wager, and check the schedule so you don’t miss any coverage leading up to the race itself.
The Dark Side: Most spectators are drawn into the romance and human interest of horse racing but it’s important to also be clear-eyed about the drawbacks of the sport. For years, detractors have been complaining about how inhumane horse racing can be. A HBO show about horse racing called Luck aired in 2011-12 but was cancelled when too many horses (three) died during production. Then the New York Times ran an investigative series about racing culture and horse fatalities. Several years ago, Eight Belles, a filly favored to win, died running the Kentucky Derby.
Side Note: There has also been a fair amount of outrage the last couple of years when race horses Zenyetta and Rachel Alexandra were named among AP’s Female Athletes of the Year. While mares and fillies rarely get the same attention as their male counterparts, it is hard to believe there weren’t actual “athletes” worthy of the honor. Still, any time a sport is turned upside down by a female, especially when most say it can’t be done, it helps women everywhere.
Will you be watching?
dare to dream