THE BIGGER, THE BETTER. Part Southern tradition, part spectacle, the Kentucky Derby hat parade is much of what makes “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports” one of the greatest people-watching events in the world! Hats became even more a focus after the royal wedding in 2011 – an event that showcased many elaborate hats and fascinators.
There may not be another American sporting event with as much history, popularity and rich traditions like those of the Kentucky Derby.
The first running of the Kentucky Derby took place in 1875 at Churchill Downs with 10,000 spectators. The Derby now draws 155,000 attendees and will run its 143rd consecutive year on May 6, 2017.
Tasked with preserving the greatest moments during the ‘most exciting two minutes in sports’ is the Kentucky Derby Museum. The Museum sits adjacent to Churchill Downs Racetrack and operates as a separate 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. The premiere attraction has welcomed millions of visitors from all over the world including celebrities like Bo Derek, Steven Spielberg, Kate Capshaw, Muhammad Ali, Sigourney Weaver and Gene Simmons to name a few.
The history of the Kentucky Derby runs deep. Thoroughbred breeding and racing had been damaged as a result of the Civil War. In the early to mid 1870’s many of the breeders were working to revive the industry in the State of Kentucky. “Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. was the first president of the Louisville Jockey Club, which eventually became known as Churchill Downs,” said Chris Goodlett, Kentucky Derby Museum Senior Curator of Collections. “Investors in the Louisville Jockey Club were part of the revival effort and enlisted Clark to spearhead their venture.” Clark was likely chosen for two reasons; his uncles John and Henry Churchill owned the land that could be used for the Racetrack and Clark is the grandson of William Clark, of the pair Lewis and Clark.
Clark traveled to Europe to study horse racing and became very fond of England’s Epsom Derby, a 1-1/2 mile race for three-year old Thoroughbreds. He brought the Epsom Derby model back to the States and the very first day of the first meeting in 1875 featured the Kentucky Derby. From 1875-1895, the race distance was 1-1/2 miles and in 1896 it was changed to 1-1/4 miles. “The Kentucky Derby has never missed a running since 1875, making it the longest continuously run sporting event in the United States,” Goodlett continued, “The Derby came close to missing in 1945 due to World War II. Instead of having it in May, it was moved to June 9th. That is probably the closest we’ve come to missing a Derby.”
The Derby was not always the marquee race it is today. In the early 20th Century, the epicenter of racing was on the East Coast, primarily New York. In 1910, some of the racetracks in New York were shut down due to pressure from anti-gambling forces which opened the door of opportunity for the Kentucky Derby. “There were three consecutive running’s of the Derby that received significant press coverage; Donerail won in 1913
with the longest shot to win – 91 to 1, Old Rosebud won in 1914 and set a track record – 2:03 2/5 and held that record until 1931, in 1915 Regret became the first filly to win,” Goodlett explained. “Regret winning in 1915 was the turning point for the Kentucky Derby,” he continues, “the proclamations made by her owner, an East Coast horseman, Harry Payne Whitney, helped solidify the Derby as a marquee race.”
The Derby took advantage of its notoriety and began to actively promote the Race. “A lot of people refer to a gentleman by the name of Matt Winn,” Goodlett continued, “He was a track executive from 1902-1949 and was an avid promoter. He courted the press, especially the press on the East Coast. They would come to the Derby a lot and then report on it.”
Churchill Downs and Winn worked tirelessly to establish the Derby brand. “Winn was pretty much at the racetrack every day in some sort of capacity until his passing in 1949. He earned the name ‘Mr. Derby’ because of his dedication and drive to Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby. People still talk about his significance to this day,” Goodlett stated. There is no doubt Winn was instrumental in keeping the Derby prominent on the race calendar and turning it into a marquee race.
IT SOUNDS CLICHÉ, BUT YOU JUST HAVE TO EXPERIENCE IT TO KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE.Chris Goodlett
Goodlett pointed out, “The Derby is now not just that race – it’s a huge cultural event. People come here to see and be seen.”
The traditions of the Kentucky Derby have always been part of the culture. “Hats have been with the Derby since the inaugural running in 1875,” Goodlett explained. “At that time, it was relatively common for men and women to look their best when going to the Derby, which included wearing a hat,” he continued. “Hats as everyday wear continued until the 1960’s when they began to wane, however, hats remained a Derby fixture. The 1960’s is also when you begin to see the rise of non-traditional, Avant-guard, more outrageous, more playful hats, which is what you see at the Kentucky Derby today.”
The culture at the Derby is hard to put into words if you have never attended the Race. “It sounds cliché, but you just have to experience it to know what it’s like,” Goodlett laughed. “I never understood the Derby as a kid. When I started working at the Derby Museum in 1999, that was the first Derby I went to. I went and watched the Race, I watched the people and I got it.”
The action surrounding the Race is nothing like anyone has seen before; the amount of people, the activities, from people wearing their finest and sitting in the clubhouse to those who are there for the atmosphere hanging out infield, it’s an event that must be experienced in order to understand why it’s such a big deal. “It’s hard to put into words,” Goodlett exclaimed.
Lindsay English, Kentucky Derby Museum Communications Manager, concurred, “It’s one of those events that you don’t have to be a fan of the sport but if you’re into drinking mint julips, the fashion, the hats, wearing a bow tie, wearing a seersucker suit, those types of things that draw in people – the people watching is phenomenal,” she continued, “You see all walks of life. Millionaires row decked out to the nines, some decked out to the nines on the infield, some wearing matching Wizard of Oz costumes; all kinds of things happening!”
The Kentucky Derby can be experienced without having to attend the actual Race; the Kentucky Derby Museum is open year-round and offers visitors an experience of a lifetime. Churchill Downs owned and operated the original Museum that was opened in 1962. “There had been a longtime desire to have a place to commemorate the event, celebrate the event and inform people of the importance and history of the Derby,” English stated.
In 1985 Churchill Downs donated property for the Museum to establish their own entity and generate their own funds. J. Graham Brown Foundation along with five banks in the community provided the construction of the facility and seed money for its endowment fund.
The Museum suffered a flash flood that dilapidated the main floor exhibits and the lower level offices in August 2009. The following year the Museum celebrated their 25th Anniversary with a $5.5 million renovation transforming the Museum’s interior from top to bottom. They took advantage of this time to create new exhibits and themes; they developed research and embraced the mission to engage, educate and excite everyone about the extraordinary experience that is the Kentucky Derby.
The Museum is two floors with many exhibits interactive so the visitors can see and feel the vibe and learn about the history of the Derby. “One of the cool things we have is something called Warner L. Jones, Jr. time machine where visitors can watch Derby’s as far back as 1918,” English informed.
COOL AS KENTUCKY, FRESH AS SPRING. The Mint Julep has been the traditional beverage of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby for nearly a century. Each year, almost 120,000 Mint Juleps are served over the two-day period of Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby weekend at Churchill Downs Racetrack.
YOU SEE ALL WALKS OF LIFE. MILLIONAIRES ROW DECKED OUT TO THE NINES, SOME DECKED OUT TO THE NINES ON THE INFIELD, SOME WEARING MATCHING WIZARD OF OZ COSTUMES; ALL KIND OF THINGS HAPPENING.
The exhibits and special collections go as far back as 1875, the first running of the Kentucky Derby. “Several hundred items were transferred from Churchill Downs,” Goodlett stated. “Some are still featured today, for example, the first Kentucky Derby program, the silks Angel Cordaro, Jr. wore in 1974 aboard Cannonade.” Artifacts in the permanent exhibits are rotated in and out as often as possible to keep the exhibits fresh and new.
“We also recently opened a permanent exhibit to American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years,” English noted, “It features many artifacts on loan from the horse’s team, including trainer Bob Baffert, Jockey Victor Espinoza and owner/breeders Justin and Ahmed Zayat of Zayat Stables.”
The Matt Winn Gallery is the Museum’s rotating gallery. “Man o’ War: The Legacy is an interactive exhibit covering the life of Man o’ War, his impressive racing career, his ties to the Kentucky Derby and his lasting mark on Thoroughbred racing,” English said. “Many of the items in the exhibit were generously loaned to the Museum by collector Ken Grayson,” she continued, “One of the featured items includes the saddle used aboard Man o’ War during his match race with Sir Barton.”
A fan favorite and signature event at the Museum is ‘The Greatest Race’ shown in The Great Hall of the Museum. The unique ‘in the round’ theater showcases everything about Kentucky Derby day on a 360-degree seamless screen; it is one of the only movies of its kind in the world. The Greatest Race underwent a $2.9 million upgrade that debuted in December 2015 and included new footage, shot in 4K, Ultra HD, new sound equipment and updates to The Great Hall. “Unless you’re singing My Old Kentucky Home on Derby day, you will not feel a bigger sense of pride or a rush of excitement about the Kentucky Derby than when you experience The Greatest Race,” Kentucky Derby Museum President Patrick Armstrong said. “This immersive media experience showcases the Derby experience to visitors from around the world and continues to enhance our mission to educate, excite and engage guests about the Kentucky Derby.”
Goodlett followed, “It captures the spirit of the Derby wonderfully. It’s the next best thing to attending the Derby,” he continued, “It’s phenomenal!” English agreed, “We’ve seen it a lot and even if you’ve seen it a million times, it still gives you chills.”
There are a variety of ways visitors can experience the Kentucky Derby Museum. “We offer a full day itinerary, half day and we also have a lot of specialty tours,” English mentioned. “Right now is peak season with about 1,500 horses returning to Churchill Downs so we’re in full Derby mode.”
A SINGALONG FOR THE AGES. It is hard to identify a more moving moment than when the horses emerge onto the track for the Kentucky Derby post parade and the band strikes up “My Old Kentucky Home” – with 160,000+ people singing along. Since 1921, the song has been a proud tradition at the event.
Historic walking tours are included with general admission. Visitors receive a 30-minute guided tour of areas of Churchill Downs while enriching their Derby history knowledge. If visitors desire, there are many other tours offered for an additional cost. Barn and Backside Van Tour guides visitors through the exclusive backside barn area of Churchill Downs. “It’s like a whole new world back there,” English exclaimed. “The backside is where all the horses reside. The people who work with the horses live back there, there’s a church and a restaurant – stuff you wouldn’t think of that goes on behind the scenes.”
The Museum also offers VIP Group Experiences. “Tours and activities can be customized to meet the needs of the group,” English noted. There are several packages offered; a full day of activities at the Kentucky Derby Museum and Churchill Downs Racetrack; taking a bourbon seminar taste testing three delicacies of Kentucky’s finest bourbons; crafting a decked-out Kentucky Derby hat; or participating in a mock race and learning about wagering and handicapping horses, to name a few.
The weekend of the Kentucky Derby, Derby Experiences, Churchill Downs Official Partner, moves into the Kentucky Derby Museum to oversee and provide concierge services to Kentucky Derby goers, including the Fillies and Lilies Party, the official kick-off party to the Kentucky Derby. This year’s party features entertainment by country music star, Clint Black. Ticket package benefits from Derby Experiences include secured tickets direct from Churchill Downs at fixed pricing; block seating for entire groups to sit together; unparalleled access to exclusive areas of the track; luxurious accommodation options in Louisville with transportation to and from the track, convenient all-inclusive packages; and much more.
Since the Museum is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, they rely heavily on the generous support of the community and through fundraising efforts. “The Kentucky Derby Museum Gala, now in its 31st year, is the single largest fundraiser for the Museum each year,” English stated. “Fundraising efforts for the Museum’s Gala will help support the Museum’s curatorial, educational programs and other program services of the Museum.” There are also ways to make in-kind and cash gifts ranging from volunteerism, garden planning, maintenance and funding for a special event or exhibit as well as becoming a corporate partner or sponsor.
“The Kentucky Derby Museum continues to rank as one of the top attractions in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, attracting nearly 220,000 guests each year,” Armstrong continued, “We pride ourselves on our customer service, unique experiences one-of-a-kind exhibits and special events. In the Museum, we say “Every Day is Derby Day” and we strive to make every guests’ visit with us a memorable one.”