It’s often referred to as “The most exciting two minutes in sports.”
So what makes the Kentucky Derby so special?
Here are five reasons not to miss America’s sporting and cultural icon, which will be held on May 4 at Churchill Downs race track in Louisville, Kentucky.
1. It’s America’s longest running sports event
The first Kentucky Derby was held on May 17, 1875, when a crowd of 10,000 saw three-year-old chestnut colt Aristides, ridden by African-American jockey Oliver Lewis, triumph at Churchill Downs.
The Derby has been held at the same venue ever since, even during both World Wars and the Great Depression of the 1930s, making it the country’s longest continuously held sports event.
The 145th edition of the mile-and-a-quarter race for three-year-old thoroughbreds is expected to attract more than 150,000 spectators.
The Derby is the first leg of racing’s prestigious Triple Crown, which also consists of the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore and the Belmont Stakes in Belmont Park, New York.
2. It has literary history, and plenty of tradition
The Kentucky Derby has been covered by some of America’s most famous writers.
In 1925, New York sports columnist Bill Corum called the Derby the “Run for the Roses” because the winning horse gets draped in a garland of hundreds of red roses.
In 1935, legendary Tennessee-born sports writer Grantland Rice described the race like this:
“Those two minutes and a second or so of derby running carry more emotional thrills, per second, than anything sport can show.”
His phrase has since been shortened to describe the Derby as “the most exciting two minutes in sports” or “the greatest two minutes in sports.”
Much-loved traditions include the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” — with the huge crowd singing along — as the Derby horses run to the start, and the mass consumption of mint juleps, the famous bourbon-based cocktail associated with the race.
3. It has legendary winners
In 1973, Secretariat won the Derby in a time of one minute, 59.4 seconds, a record that still stands to this day. By comparison, last year’s race was won by Justify, ridden by jockey Mike Smith, in a time of two minutes, 4.2 seconds, in what was the wettest in the event’s history, with more than 3 inches of rain.
Secretariat, also known as “Big Red,” went on to clinch the Triple Crown in 1973, ending a 25-year wait.
In 2006, Barbaro captured the public’s imagination with an epic Derby win followed by a heroic fight against injury. After becoming only the sixth horse to win the Derby with an unbeaten record, Barbaro looked like he could be on the way to the Triple Crown when disaster struck in the Preakness Stakes two weeks later — he shattered his leg shortly after getting out of the starting gates.
Barbaro was put down by his owners eight months later, unable to overcome the complications he had suffered after the accident.
In 2015, American Pharoah became the first horse to win the coveted Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. The horse made the cover of Sports Illustrated and was photographed by US fashion magazine Vogue.
Last year, Justify became only the 13th horse to clinch the coveted Triple Crown. He was retired, unbeaten, in July, with his hall-of-fame trainer Bob Baffert saying the chestnut colt was struggling from fluid in his left front ankle. Justify retired to a lucrative stud career with $3.9 million in earnings on the track, which is not a bad return for a horse that cost $500,000.
4. It attracts the rich and famous
The Derby is a highlight of the social calendar and has always been a draw for the rich and famous, with some of the biggest stars in sports, fashion and Hollywood mixing with royalty.
Previous Derby guests include Britain’s Princess Margaret, boxer Muhammad Ali, US presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, Hollywood legends Lana Turner and Bing Crosby, baseball star Babe Ruth and in recent years, singer Justin Timberlake, actor Jack Nicholson, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and NFL star Eli Manning.
Singer Jennifer Nettles will perform the National Anthem in front of the famous Twin Spires of Churchill Downs this year.
5. The favorite tends to do well
Last year’s win by Justify marked the sixth year in a row the pre-race favorite had triumphed, the longest streak since the 1890s.
This year, however, pre-race favorite Omaha Beach was ruled out late Wednesday because of a respiratory disease, making the event wide open.
Trainer Bob Baffert’s Game Winner has been installed as the new 5-2 favorite at the head of the 20-runner field, ahead of stablemates Roadster and Improbable at 5-1.
The 66-year-old Baffert is aiming to equal the record of six wins set by Ben A.Jones between 1938 and 1952.
Baffert saddled Justify to the Derby and Triple Crown in 2018, three years after achieving the same feat with American Pharoah.