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As the beautiful Kentucky countryside greens up during springtime, when the Dogwood trees and Azalea bushes are reaching full bloom, it's time again for one of Louisville's greatest claims to fame, the KENTUCKY DERBYÂ® . The Derby, for short, is the most famous horse race in North America, if not the world. The Derby is run at the historic CHURCHILL DOWNSÂ® racetrack located just south of downtown Louisville. Churchill Downs is, of course, well recognized by its iconic "twin spires" shown below.
For as long as I have lived, the Derby has been run the first Saturday in May. It is the culmination of the opening week of the Spring Meet at Churchill, thus the traditional reference to that week as DERBY WEEKÂ®.
The first Kentucky Derby was in 1875. The Derby is the longest continuously run major annual sports championship in the United States. It just about got cancelled for one year back in the 1940s during the Second World War. Fortunately though, for tradition and history, the Churchill Downs' management was able to pull off the race later in that year, during the Summer. (You might be thinking that the baseball World Series predates the Derby, but you might be forgetting that as a result of a labor strike a few years back, the World Series was cancelled that year, and thus it no longer is the longest continuously run major annual sports championship in the United States.)
The Derby is also well known as the RUN FOR THE ROSESÂ®, a reference to the large garland of red roses placed in honor over the withers of the winning colt, or occasionally even a filly, as it proudly prances to the winner's circle to be greeted by the Governor of Kentucky, our former partner, Steve Beshear.
The 1 Â¼ mile long race is fielded by up to 20 of the greatest three year old Thoroughbred race horses in the world. Only three year old horses are eligible to compete in the Derby. Thus, in the words of the late balladeer Dan Fogelberg in his tribute song to the Derby, "Run for the Roses," the race truly is a single "chance of a lifetime" for these splendid horsesâ
"From sire to sire, it's born in the blood
The fire of a mare and the strength of a stud
It's breeding and it's training and it's something unknown
That drives you and carries you home.
And it's run for the roses as fast as you can
Your fate is delivered, your moment's at hand
It's the chance of a lifetime in a lifetime of chance
And it's high time you joined in the dance
It's high time you joined in the dance."
The race itself normally last just over 2 minutes, although the great Secretariat, the winner of the 1973 Derby broke the 2 minute barrier, running the race in 1:59.40. Thus, another famous nickname for the Derby is "the Greatest Two Minutes in Sports."
Although "Derby Week" is a well-known reference to this week, the festival leading up to the Derby actually begins two weeks before with THUNDER OVER LOUISVILLEÂ®, a fabulous Saturday afternoon airshow, followed by the largest annual fireworks show in North America, both presented over the waters of the mighty Ohio River which forms the northern border of Louisville. "Thunder," as we locals call it for short, typically draws a crowd of in excess of half a million people.
Thunder, is part of the "Kentucky Derby Festival," dozens of events during the two weeks leading up to the Derby. The "Festival" is produced by a local non-profit civic organization known for short as KDF, not Churchill Downs. KDF does, of course, coordinate its activities with Churchill Downs and is licensed to use the Derby trademarks.
Another of the better known Derby Festival events is the "Great Steamboat Race" featuring Louisville's city owned 100 year old namesake, the BELLE OF LOUISVILLEÂ® . Every Wednesday of Derby Week, the Belle competes on the Ohio River in an old fashioned steamboat race against other historic steamboats that cruise to Louisville at Derby time.
And of course, of all the great traditions associated with the Derby, we must mention the official beverage of the Derby. One must sip a Mint Julep while listening to the melodic sounds of our state song, "My Old Kentucky Home," being performed as it always is by the University of Louisville Marching Band as the proud horses step onto the track marching to the starting gate from where they will break for that greatest of two minutes in sports.
Make yourself one, the recipe is fairly simple. Take a tumbler glass or julep cup, crush a fresh sprig of mint into about a teaspoon of moist sugar, fill the tumbler with shaved ice, and then fill the tumbler to the brim with a fine Kentucky bourbon. My preference is WOODFORD RESERVEÂ®. I know, Woodford is not the "official bourbon" of the Derby this year, OLD FORESTERÂ® is, but my preference is not a sacrilege, both brands are distilled by the same company, another great Louisville corporate citizen, the Brown-Forman Company.
So get your bets placed â my exacta will be placed on Dortmund (horse number 8) and El Kabeir (horse number 9) â get your Mint Julep ready by 15 minutes before the 6:34 EDT post time for the Derby, and get a handkerchief handy as the noble steed walk onto the track serenaded by Stephen Foster's masterpiece, our state song â
"The sun shines bright in My Old Kentucky Home,
'Tis summer, the people are gay;
The corn-top's ripe and the meadow's in the bloom
While the birds make music all the day.
The young folks roll on the little cabin floor,
All merry, all happy and bright;
By 'n' by hard times comes a knocking at the door,
Then My Old Kentucky Home, good night!
Weep no more my lady
Oh weep no more today;
We will sing one song
For My Old Kentucky Home
For My Old Kentucky Home, far away."