When the Farmers’ Almanac celebrated its 57th anniversary in 1875, plans were being made to open the now legendary Churchill Downs horse race course in Louisville, Kentucky, and run the very first Kentucky Derby. Today, the Kentucky Derby is America’s oldest continuously run horse race, yet it is also so much more. It is an unparalleled event, a must-see happening, and a unique lifetime experience sought out by people from around the globe.
When the Kentucky Derby is run on the first Saturday in May, few people will stop to wonder just how this two-minute horse race evolved to be a world-renowned event. The founder of the track and Derby was Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., grandson of the great explorer William Clark of Lewis & Clark fame. Having toured Europe and studied the great horse races, Clark was impressed by the Epsom Derby in England and the Grand Prix de Paris, sponsored by the French Jockey Club. He organized the Louisville Jockey Club and built a European-style horse race course on the farm of his cousins, john and Henry Churchill.
Churchill Downs, as it became named, hosts many horse races every year, as well as many exciting nonequine events, yet nothing comes close to the excitement, magic, and allure of the Kentucky Derby.
For the first 27 years of operation, Churchill Downs never made a profit. In 1902, a marketing genius named Matt Winn, a tailor by trade, was drafted by local businessmen to take the helm of the Downs and have it turn a profit. It did so the next year and has every year thereafter. Winn’s ultimate goal was to make the Kentucky Derby a memorable, unique, and must-see event. Until the day he died in 1949, Winn was relentless in his marketing and promotion, which paid off then and still does today.
Part of Winn’s marketing success was creating several Derby rituals that have become integral parts of the event. The “garland of roses” that is for the Derby winner and the handsome gold trophy are a few examples. The singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” when the first Derby contender sets hoof on the track before the race was also the brainchild of Matt Winn. The annual and collectible official Derby mint julep glass was first produced in 1938. Winn was also responsible for picking the first Saturday in May to hold the Kentucky Derby. He was concerned with the weather and thought this was a good chance for nice weather in Kentucky. (Perhaps he checked the Farmers’ Almanac? We will never know.)
Today, the public still enjoys many Derby traditions, including sipping mint juleps (recipe below) and enjoying “hot browns,” wearing fancy hats, and eating slices of Derby-Pie as they watch the race. The “Run For The Roses” continues to be a unique American tradition that is seen by millions of people worldwide.
Classic Mint Julep
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
Sprigs of fresh mint
Start by making a simple syrup by boiling sugar and water together for five minutes. Cool and place in a covered container with six or eight sprigs of fresh mint, then refrigerate overnight.
Make one julep at a time by filling a julep cup with crushed ice, adding one tablespoon of the mint syrup and two ounces of Kentucky Bourbon. Stir rapidly with a spoon to frost the outside of the cup. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.