Kentucky Derby Traditions: The History Behind The Run For The Roses

The Kentucky Derby is widely hailed as "the most exciting two minutes in sports." Learn more about the traditions behind this successful horse race held every year on the first Saturday in May.

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.

The First Saturday in May

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 racecourse on the farm of his uncles, 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 Colonel Martin J. “Matt” Winn (June 30, 1861 – October 6, 1949), 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 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.

Kentucky Derby Traditions

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. See what we’re forecasting for Derby Day here.)

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 uniquely American tradition that is seen by millions of people worldwide.

Refreshing Cold Mint Julep.

Classic Mint Julep

Course Drinks


  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • sprigs of fresh mint
  • crushed ice
  • Kentucky Bourbon


  • 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.
Keyword classic mint julep, mint julep recipe

What are your Kentucky Derby traditions? Tell us in the comments below…

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Lee Wheeler


Lee Wheeler

I am a former resident of Kentucky and must say the mint julep is awful even when served in the silver cup.
I get a drink every year (collector) and pour the drink out after the first sip.

Sandi Duncan

Hi Lee,
Thanks for sharing! I’ve never had one but would like to go to the race one year! Love that you collect the cups!

C. Mushett

We tried the Mint Juleps at the 142nd derby in 2016. In our opinion…..nasty!


A group of friends are going to a local event in our community that will have all the elements of the great race. Most of us will be dressed for the occasion.

Susan Higgins

Cherie, it was quite a race, no? You witnessed history with that disqualification!


We don’t drink I use sparkling water…you can use sparkling lime drink. Very refreshing.

Gayle Ashley

My husband and I have been to the race several times – it’s such a thrill and very fun to bet on the races. The downside is that it’s such a spectacle that it’s become too expensive; only general admission tickets (no seat) are affordable. And parking is a huge problem; you have to park blocks away and walk or ride a bus. When it’s over there are thousands of people walking to their cars; people you can’t get around, tired people, drunk people, and it takes FOREVER to get back to your car. So, unless you have thousands to spend on great seas and a hotel limo to drop you off and pick you up… watch it on TV and bet from your phone.

Lucille C Naber

My sister’s and our husbands make bets on who is going to win. It’s like a game with us. Our father used to watch the Derby with us when we were girls.

Susan Higgins

What a fun tradition! It was quite a race!

Pamela Taylor

My husband and I have watched for a long time, we always have champagne and a great time.




My husband and I dress for the Kentucky Derby from head to toe. We make mint juleps and finger food that we enjoy before, during and after the race that we watch on the television.

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