One of the biggest parties of the year takes place this Saturday in Louisville, Ky. when more than 150,000 people gather at the legendary Churchill Downs to watch the nation’s top 3-year-old thoroughbred racehorses compete in the 133rd running of the Kentucky Derby.
The Kentucky Derby, or simply the “Derby,” first took place in 1875, making it the longest-running, uninterrupted sporting event in the United States. Because only 3-year-olds are allowed to participate in the race, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Every year, thousands of thoroughbreds are born, but only up to 20 of them will participate in the Derby three years later. There are other horse races with larger payouts for the winners, and because the Derby is only open to 3-year-olds, it does not necessarily include the best horses in the world. But for the owners, trainers, jockeys and others in the thoroughbred racing business, winning this mile-and-a-quarter contest is the ultimate accomplishment.
The thoroughbred is a supreme athlete, bred to perfection over hundreds of years. It is the fastest animal in the world. The cheetah can run at a higher speed for short distances, but after a mile the thoroughbred has no equal.
Most of these athletes begin racing at age 2, competing only against other 2-year-olds. Like human children, they make mistakes and learn from them. The next year, they compete in what are called “Derby prep races” throughout the nation.
The biggest prep race in the Los Angeles area, the Santa Anita Derby, takes place in April. This year, a longshot named Tiago won at odds of more than 30-1. My good friend Bill Koeneker from the Malibu Surfside News, who was attending his first Santa Anita Derby, picked the winner. Too bad he only bet two dollars.
Music executive Jerry Moss owns Tiago. The horse is not expected to be the favorite this Saturday, and actually will likely be just as much of a longshot as he was at Santa Anita. However, another horse owned by Moss and a brother of Tiago’s, Giacomo, came out of Santa Anita as a longshot in 2005, and won in Louisville at odds of 51-1.
The opening odds for the Derby will not be ready until Wednesday, after The Malibu Times goes to print, but the likely favorite will be a horse named Curlin. He is a lightly raced thoroughbred, only having competed in three races, and untraditionally did not race at all when he was 2. My pick this year is Scat Daddy, the winner of the Florida Derby. His jockey is Edgar Prado, who rode last year’s Derby winner, Barbaro. But I must warn you, since becoming a fan of the sport 10 years ago I have never correctly predicted the Derby winner.
The Derby always takes place on the first Saturday in May. And the day before that, another race takes place called the Kentucky Oaks, a mile-and-an-eighth race for 3-year-old fillies (female horses). Sometimes if a filly is really special, she runs in the Derby. A filly has won the Derby three times, with Winning Colors last doing it in 1988. There are no fillies entered in this year’s Derby, but some say the favorite to win the Oaks, Rags to Riches, could have done well in the Derby.
Although more than 150,000 people attend the Derby, many never actually get to see the race except on a monitor. They stand in the infield portion of the track in what is basically a big party. During the hours leading up to the main event, several other races take place. Those in attendance watch as they sip on a traditional Southern cocktail called a Mint Julep and perhaps bet a few dollars. Another Derby tradition is that the women wear fancy hats, often elaborately decorated.
At approximately 6 p.m. local time, the horses begin to walk toward the starting gate as the University of Louisville marching band plays “My Old Kentucky Home.”
After all the competitors are in the gate, the race begins. Some of the jockeys race their horses quickly up to the front, trying to get a big enough lead so that nobody can catch them. Others stay in the middle, and make their move later. And still others begin far back, looking as if they are out of the race, but finish with tremendous speed.
After about two minutes, one horse crosses the finish line before all the others and becomes the champion. A blanket of roses is placed on the winner, which is the reason why the Derby is nicknamed “The Run for the Roses.” And that horse has an opportunity that none of his competitors has. If he can win a race in Maryland two weeks later called the Preakness Stakes and then another in Long Island three weeks after that called the Belmont Stakes, he will become a Triple Crown winner. Only 11 thoroughbreds have won the Triple Crown, none since 1978.
Tune in to NBC, Channel 4, at 1 p.m. for all the Derby coverage. And to make your experience even more exciting, here’s a recipe for the Mint Julep.
– 2 cups sugar
– 2 cups water
– Sprigs of fresh mint
– Crushed ice
1. Boil the sugar and water together for five minutes to create the syrup. Place the syrup in a container with about eight sprigs of fresh mint and refrigerate overnight.
2. Fill a cup with crushed ice; add one tablespoon of syrup and two ounces of whisky (if the alcohol is too much to handle, add more syrup).
3. Stir and add another sprig of fresh mint.