Churchill Downs. Credit: Kentucky TourismThe Kentucky Derby is set to take place tomorrow in Louisville at the famous Churchill Downs racetrack, where thousands of people will be gathered--dressed in their finest suits and gaudiest hats--to watch the 20-odd contestants race 1 1/4 miles for the $2.1 million prize.
It is a highly anticipated race for sports fans and bookies alike as people put both their hearts and their wallets on the table once the horses have been loaded into the starting gate. While I am not much of a horse-racing fan, and I am definitely not one to gamble, I still enjoy tuning in for the big event, mostly to observe the cultural aspect of it all.
This year marks the 137th running of the Derby, and the event continues to captivate audiences worldwide, not just because of the excitement of the race, but also the wonderful traditions that have become iconic over the decades. From the garland of roses and the Twin Spires to the Mint Juleps and Kentucky Oaks, the Derby has become a cherished part of our history. For those of you who are unaware of the details of this timeless celebration, allow me to elaborate.
Garland of roses. Credit: Kentucky DerbyThe first race took place in 1875 in the city of Louisville, Kentucky, a place with a long history of horseracing that dates back to 1783. Though it isn't really clear why, the race became a sensation. The rose became a symbol of the event when it was presented to all the ladies that attended a fashionable derby party. The then president of Churchill Downs adopted it as the official race flower, and the rose garland is now synonymous with the celebration after it was presented to the winner in the 1896 running. In 1925, the race was dubbed "The Run of the Roses" and the garland that you see today has been used ever since 1932. Each year, 400 red roses are strung together on a green backing with the seal of the Commonwealth on one end the Twin Spires on the other. Each one also has a crown of roses, green fern and ribbon placed in the center.
The Twin Spires are a landmark in Kentucky. They were built in 1895 atop the racetrack complex and designed by Joseph Dominic Baldez who was recruited to sketch out the new grandstand. Though the spires were not included in the original plan, they were embraced as monuments by all.
As far as cuisine goes, the Kentucky Derby certainly serves up some interesting and classic dishes.
Mint Julep. Credit: Southerliving.comI'll start with drinks, since the event is so quick, people need libations to keep them happy. The Mint Julep is the signature drink at Churchill Downs, and has been for almost a century. Early Times Distillery has become the name behind the drink, serving up its cocktail for the last 18 years. The company has served up nearly 120,000 drinks each year. The cocktail consists of simple syrup, fresh mint, Early Times Whisky, and crushed ice. If you can't make it to Louisville for one of these, they are sold at local retailers. Critics of this drink say it isn't a proper Julep because it does not contain Bourbon, so if you are looking for something a bit more intense, I suggest making your own or finding something at a local bar. A lesser known cocktail is the Oaks Lily, made with vodka, sweet and sour mix, cranberry juice and Triple Sec.
A local creation, Hot Brown is an open sandwich that is made with sliced turkey, crispy bacon, and buttered toast drenched in Mornay sauce--which is like bechamel (bay-shah-MEL) with cheese. It was invented by the chef at the Brown Hotel in the 1920s and has been a staple of the race ever since. Kentucky Burgoo can best be described as a stew, mostly because it has no known origin and there are countless ways to make it. Basically, its consists of a bunch of meat like mutton, beef, pork and chicken, an assortment of corn, potatoes, lima beans, tomatoes, and a range of spices like Worcestershire. Finally, the Kentucky Derby would not be complete without the Derby Pie. It was invented 50 years ago at Melrose Ince in Prospect, Kentucky. The crust is filled with semi-sweet chocolate and English walnuts and topped with whipped cream.
Derby hat. Credit: Boston.comApart from the symbolic racetrack, the delicious drinks and delectable food, the Kentucky Derby is known for one other thing: HATS! Every year people come dressed in their best dresses and top-quality suits, topping it all off with an ostentatious hat. There are no rules as to how big or small a hat is suppose to be, but there is certainly a stigma when it comes to wearing one--it's a must! Perhaps its Southern charm or a status symbol, but the fashionable hat is certainly a tradition in which everyone loves to revel.
For me, the Kentucky Derby showcases a culture that is completely different from the everyday. When people step onto the premises of Chruchill Downs, they are transported to another time, another world. It is a spectacle that can only be experienced once a year, and then it is gone, pushed to the background until the anticipation builds again next spring, when women can buy a new flashy hat, and men can stir up another minty treat.
Cherish the moment while you have it, because, after all, it is only two minutes from the moment the gates fly open to when the horses cross over the finish line.