A Beginner’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby

Events / Travel
Fans enjoy the racing action at Churchill Downs during Kentucky Derby week in 2019. (Eclipse Sportswire)

If you’ve opened this story you probably are interested in the Kentucky Derby but might not know a whole lot about horse racing or the Triple Crown. That’s OK – we’re here to help.

The Kentucky Derby is the most-watched horse race of the year in the United States and is widely considered one of the most important sporting events in the country, having grown to become much more than just a horse race since Aristides won the first edition in 1875.

The Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve is the first jewel of the Triple Crown, a series of races that includes the Preakness Stakes two weeks later in Baltimore and concludes with the Belmont Stakes three weeks after that in New York. The 13 horses that have won all three races are known as Triple Crown winners, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Starting with the basics of who, what, when, where, and why, and then spreading out from there, let’s explore the Kentucky Derby.

WHO: The Best 3-Year-Old Racehorses

The Kentucky Derby is restricted to 3-year-old racehorses, male or female, so a Thoroughbred is eligible for the race only once in their lives. Horses must be nominated to the Triple Crown and then qualify for the Kentucky Derby through a series of races that award points to the top four finishers. The Kentucky Derby field is restricted to 20 runners.

Three fillies (female 3-year-old racehorses) have won the Kentucky Derby: Regret (1915), Genuine Risk (1980), and Winning Colors (1988).

WHAT: The ‘Run for the Roses’

The Kentucky Derby is often called the run for the roses because the winner has a blanket of roses draped over his/her back after the race. As mentioned above, the Kentucky Derby is only for 3-year-olds and limited to 20 starters. The race itself is a 1 ¼-mile race on a dirt main track that is a test of both speed and stamina.

The oldest continuously held major sporting event in the U.S., the race also is commonly referred to as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.”

WHEN: The First Saturday in May

The Kentucky Derby is held every year – well, every year when the world is not in the midst of a pandemic – on the first Saturday in May. From 1946 through 2019, the race was held on the first Saturday of the month of May until COVID-19 in 2020 forced the postponement of the race until September. The Kentucky Derby returned to its usual place on the calendar in 2021 and this year’s 147th Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve will be held on May 1.

The race has been held outside the month of May only three times: Monday, April 29, 1901; Saturday, June 9, 1945; and Sept. 5, 2020. The Kentucky Derby has been run on a Saturday on 108 occasions and each day of the week except Sunday. The last time it wasn’t staged on a Saturday was 1910.

WHERE: Churchill Downs

The famed Twin Spires (Eclipse Sportswire)

Kentucky is the epicenter of the Thoroughbred racehorse in the United States with roughly 44% of all racehorses bred in the state, so it makes sense that the most important race in the country would take place in Kentucky. Churchill Downs in Louisville – about 70 miles west of the breeding capital in Lexington – is the host track of the Kentucky Derby under its famed Twin Spires that sit atop the racetrack grandstand.

Churchill Downs, located on Central Avenue in Louisville, opened in 1875 and held the first Kentucky Derby the same year. The track is named for John and Henry Churchill, who leased 80 acres of land to their nephew, Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. (grandson of explorer William Clark).

WHY: Inspired Abroad

The history of the Kentucky Derby originates in 1872, when the aforementioned Meriwether Lewis Clark traveled to Europe and attended the Epsom Derby in England, a race run since 1780, and met members of the French Jockey Club. Inspired by his trip and experience in Europe, he set out to create a similar racing event in the U.S.

Gifted the land to develop a racetrack and, after formally organizing the Louisville Jockey Club, Clark and his new club raised the funding to build Churchill Downs in Louisville. On May 17, 1875, the track opened its gates for the first time and the Louisville Jockey Club sponsored the inaugural Kentucky Derby. Fifteen 3-year-old Thoroughbred racehorses competed in the 1 ½-mile race in front of approximately 10,000 fans with Aristides prevailing.

In the years since that first running, the Kentucky Derby has evolved and become the most important event on the racing calendar as well as the main focus of horse racing fans every spring, a time when 3-year-old racehorses frequently mature mentally and develop physically into elite athletes.


WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2021

The pandemic in 2020 pushed the Kentucky Derby back to September, however, in 2021 it returns to its regular place on the calendar and will be held May 1.

The race will be televised on NBC during the network’s main telecast that runs from 2:30 to 7:30 p.m. ET. NBCSN also will provide live coverage of the Kentucky Derby earlier in the day from noon to 2:30 p.m. The estimated post time (when the race is scheduled to be run) for the 2021 Kentucky Derby is 6:57 p.m. ET.

The official 2021 Kentucky Derby store offers men’s and women’s clothes, hats, accessories, collectibles and, of course, the official Kentucky Derby glass for Derby 147.

Churchill Downs plans to allow fans attendance (in a limited capacity) with tickets available here as well as health, safety, and ticket information here. If you are planning to attend, Churchill Downs has a comprehensive guide outlining what to expect from the Derby day experience at Churchill Downs, including what you can and cannot bring in, where to park, and how to make the most of the trip. While you are in Louisville, be sure to stop by the Kentucky Derby Museum, which recently opened a new Black Heritage in Racing Exhibit.


PICK A HORSE TO ROOT FOR

Now that you know the nuts and bolts, you need to pick a horse to root for in the Kentucky Derby, but how do you decide? The easy answer is that it’s the horse, of course!

Racehorses, like people, have different personalities and qualities on and off the track.

Early Derby favorite Essential Quality (Eclipse Sportswire)

While Thoroughbreds have a reputation for being a bit hot-blooded, there are racehorses that loved to be doted upon and fed carrots, apples, and peppermints while others who might take a chunk out of your back if you’re not paying attention. A flashy racehorse might catch your eye or maybe a plain horse with humble beginnings is more your type. Some horses are all speed and want to go-go-go as soon as the race starts; others prefer to race at the back of the pack and wait until the end and try for and eye-catching rally (note: I’m a sucker for this type of runner, which is called a closer). Sometimes it’s as simple as liking a racehorse’s name (see below).

We’ll have a slideshow of the Kentucky Derby contenders to help you pick in the coming weeks as well as multiple other features like our handy Cheat Sheet and quick “At a Glance” look at the field to help you find your Derby horse. For now, please check out our Triple Crown page that features the leading contenders and links to their profiles or the official Kentucky Derby contenders page for more information.

There obviously are also financial reasons to root for a Kentucky Derby runner. If you bet $5 to win on a horse who is 20-1 odds, you’re basically required to hoot and holler if that horse is vying for the lead in the Churchill Downs stretch on Derby day. Shouting something like “C’mon, one time!” or “Bring him home for me, [insert jockey name]!” make you look like you’re a seasoned veteran at this stuff.


SPEAKING OF NAMES

One thing that often sparks the curiosity of newcomers to horse racing is how racehorses get their names. The short answer is that owners get to choose the name of their racehorse, but it must be approved by The Jockey Club, which serves as the official registry for North American Thoroughbred racehorses and has a set of rules for naming horses.

But there is so much more to naming racehorses. Sometimes they are inspired by pop culture themes like Star Wars or Star Trek, sometimes a sport or a team is the inspiration, and patriotism is often a central theme for racing stables. Sometimes a single Tweet can serve as the inspiration as was the case with LNJ Foxwoods’ two-time champion Covfefe. Often, stables name racehorses after children or after a dearly departed family member.

Many racehorse sires (fathers) spark a wave of names. Storm Cat led to notable “cats” like 1994 Preakness Stakes winner Tabasco Cat and 1999 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Cat Thief, while Kitten’s Joy was the sire of champion Big Blue Kitten and 2015 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf winner Stephanie’s Kitten.

Most often, however, racehorses are named for some combination of their pedigree or parentage, using the names of sire (father) and dam (mother) to form a name. Often it can be incredibly straightforward; for example, owner-breeder Chuck Fipke tries to keep it simple since he has a fairly vast breeding and racing operation with names like Forever Unbridled (by sire Unbridled’s Song out of dam Lemons Forever) or Perfect Shirl (by Perfect Soul out of Lady Shirl).

Using that structure of building off the names of both father and mother, owners can also get pretty creative with names like 2020 Preakness Stakes winner Tiz the Law (by Constitution out of Tizfiz) or stakes winner Shoplifted (by Into Mischief out of Shopit).

If a Derby runner’s name catches your eye, you might have your horse. Or maybe, there is more to the story that makes a horse easy to cheer for …


CONNECT WITH THE ‘CONNECTIONS’

You might see the term “connections” for a horse mentioned, which simply means the people connected to the Kentucky Derby runners.

Like racehorses, the jockeys, trainers, owners, and breeders of these wonderful animals come from all sorts of backgrounds and across the country – there are a trio of Hall of Fame trainers whose legacies trace back to South Dakota – so this is a sport with a seemingly endless array of stories. If you read a story that connects you with someone, you’ve got your Kentucky Derby horse. Years ago, as a Delawarean whose parents were from Philadelphia, I connected with unlikely 2004 Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones, whose owners raced as Someday Farm with only one horse left in their stable and with a Pennsylvania-based trainer and jockey. The next year Delaware Park-based Afleet Alex helped raise money to combat childhood cancer via Alex’s Lemonade Stand, and I was firmly on his bandwagon when he won the 2005 Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Keep an eye out for human-interest stories here at America’s Best Racing, through social media, and on other racing websites to find a connection.


TRADITIONS

Kentucky Derby hat (Eclipse Sportswire)

The Kentucky Derby has evolved from a sporting event into part of the fabric of American culture. As you might expect, there are many traditions associated with the race from the garland of roses presented to the winner to the Twin Spires that overlook the Churchill Downs stretch. But we are only scratching the surface.

Other notable traditions include hosting the Kentucky Oaks for 3-year-old fillies on the Friday before the Kentucky Derby (watch the Kentucky Oaks on NBCSN from noon to 6 p.m. ET); the mint julep, the official drink of the Kentucky Derby (be sure to read this handy guide); the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” when the racehorses walk onto the racetrack before the start of the race; celebrities coming from across the country and the world to attend the race; and the Kentucky Derby hat as the focal point of the fashion of the event (learn about Kentucky Derby featured milliner Christine A. Moore).


IT’S A PARTY

Part of the allure of the Kentucky Derby each year is undoubtedly the party aspect. Although attendance will be limited in 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic, the infield on Kentucky Derby day typically draws all kinds of fans from partyers to families to gamblers and more. Many mint juleps are consumed in the infield at a typical Kentucky Derby, which from 2000 to 2019 drew from 140,000 to 170,000 total fans. 

Eclipse Sportswire

While there are certainly those that travel to Louisville for the party – both the main event and dozens of others in Louisville the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby – there is much more to it than food and booze. You’ll see thousands of fans wandering around Churchill Downs wide-eyed soaking in the atmosphere, plenty of gamblers with their eyes glued to the Daily Racing Form or a program, and others just there to have a great time and socialize on the big day. There really is something for everyone.

But the party is far from limited to Churchill and the surrounding area. Tracks across the country regularly host fans on Derby day, sometimes even when they don’t offer live racing, and people all over the U.S. host family and friends to celebrate at home. It’s never been easier to track down food and drink recipes, order hats and outfits online, and even bet a few bucks without leaving the comforts of home. For this interested in hosting a party, check out this terrific guide from Penelope Miller for an unforgettable Kentucky Derby soiree.

Did You Know? – In 2015, Churchill Downs set an attendance record when 170,513 people attended the Kentucky Derby. The previous record was 165,307 in 2012.


WANNA BET?!

It’s never been easier to place a bet on the Kentucky Derby. You can visit your local track on the big day or you can bet from home using what is called an advance-deposit-wagering platform. Using an “ADW” requires signing up for an account and depositing money in advance that can be used to bet online. Sometimes, it can be a bit of a process to start up, so don’t wait until the last minute if you are hoping to place some bets on Kentucky Derby day. At the start of the 2020 pandemic, America’s Best Racing’s Dan Tordjman put together a story with instructions on starting an online account to bet on horse races.

The team at America’s Best Racing also put our heads together to provide some Dos and Don’ts for betting online. We put together a feature on which runners would benefit from rain on Kentucky Derby day, and we even have the leading tool in the sport for figuring out how to make your bets and what they’ll cost: ABR’s Gambling Calculator, presented by 1/ST Bet.

If you are reading this story in particular, however, you might be looking for just the basics and we can help there, too. We have a whole post called “Betting on Horse Racing, Explained” with a focus on bettors just like you with limited experience. Below is small section as a sample:

The Basics

Win bet – A bet on a horse to finish first.

Place bet – A bet on a horse to finish first or second.

Show bet A bet on a horse to finish in the money; third or better.

In the money – A horse that finishes first, second, or third.

Across the board – A bet on a horse to win, place, and show. If the horse wins, the bettor collects three ways; if second, two ways (place, show); and if third, one way, losing the win and place bets. It's actually three bets.

Morning line – The odds that the track handicapper predicts a horse will be to win the race when it starts.

Did you Know? - The record for money wagered Kentucky Derby day came in 2019 when $250,900,257 was wagered on the card of races at Churchill Downs.


QUALIFYING FOR THE KENTUCKY DERBY

For many years, the field for the Kentucky Derby was determined by purse earnings in a specific classification of stakes races, but that changed in 2013 when Churchill Downs unveiled a new points system that has subsequently evolved over the years.

The “Road to the Kentucky Derby” typically begins in September of the previous year and extends through to the final points races in April, just a few weeks before the Kentucky Derby. The races are slotted into one of two categories: Kentucky Derby Prep Season (20 races for this year’s Derby) and Kentucky Derby Championship Series (16 races).

Kentucky Derby Prep Season qualifying races award points to the top-four finishers on a 10-4-2-1 scale, with the exception of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, which has a 20-8-4-2 scale to reflect the importance of that race.

Kentucky Derby Championship Series races begin most years in February with the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds and award points based on one of two scales: 50-20-10-5 points, respectively, to the top four or 100-40-20-10 for the most important races in the final six weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby. There is one exception from this group, the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland three weeks before the Kentucky Derby, which awards points on a 20-8-4-2 scale.

The 3-year-olds amass points in qualifying races and the top 20 earners among Triple Crown nominated horses earn a place in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.


FIVE FUN FACTS ABOUT THE KENTUCKY DERBY

2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird (Eclipse Sportswire)

  1. Four horses have paid more than $100 for a $2 win bet: Donerail in 1913 paid $184.90 for a $2 win bet; Country House in 2019 paid $132.40; Mine That Bird in 2009 paid $103.20; and Giacomo in 2005 paid $102.60.
  2. The fastest Kentucky Derby in the race’s long history was run by one of the true legends of the sport. In 1973, Hall of Famer Secretariat completed the 1 ¼-mile distance in 1:59.40.
  3. Kentucky is the birthplace of 112 Kentucky Derby winners. Florida ranks next with six among 15 different states plus England and Canada that have been the birthplace of at least one Kentucky Derby winner.
  4. Nineteen Kentucky Derby winners had names that begin with the letter S, the most of any letter. The only two letters in not represented by a Derby winner are Q and X.
  5. The Kentucky Derby is now restricted to 20 runners, but in 1974 there were 23 3-year-olds that started in the 100th running of the race, the largest field in Kentucky Derby history.

MORE ABOUT THE HORSES

Racehorses come in many different sizes, ranging from about 900 to 1,400 pounds, and colors, including Bay, Black, Chestnut, Dark Bay or Brown, or Gray or Roan. There also has been in recent years an increase in White Thoroughbreds.

Many racehorses stand out because of markings, like a white blaze or star on their heads or one or more white legs or feet.

When a Thoroughbred is born, it is called a foal, which is a name for a young horse in the first year of its life. Thoroughbreds are called weanlings after they have been separated from their mothers; and a yearling refers to a male or female Thoroughbred in its second calendar year of life, which commences Jan. 1 of the year following its birth.

Jan. 1 is the official birthday for all Thoroughbreds.

All Thoroughbred racehorses must be registered according to the guidelines of The Jockey Club and races begin for racehorses in the spring of their 2-year-olds seasons.

Did You Know? The most common color of Kentucky Derby winners over the years is Bay with 55 winners, followed by Chestnut with 48 Derby winners.


LIFE AFTER THE RACETRACK

Some of the best male and female racehorses go on to a breeding career in retirement, but only the best male racehorses become sires (fathers) and roughly 27,000 to 33,000 female Thoroughbreds are bred each year. The good news is Thoroughbred racehorses are incredibly versatile and often go on to second careers at what is called OTTBs (off-track Thoroughbreds).

Thoroughbreds are smart, competitive animals and if they’ve spent time stabled at a racetrack, which the vast majority have, they’ve seen and heard pretty much everything.

Retired racehorses can go on to second careers in Dressage, Eventing, Show Jumping, Polo, etc. Each year the Retired Racehorse Project hosts the Thoroughbred Makeover, the largest Thoroughbred retraining competition in the world for recently-retired ex-racehorses.

OTTBs can become pleasure horses and sometimes they just live a life of leisure, ranging from those at Old Friends in Georgetown, Ky. to others who simply get adopted by someone who followed their career or loves horses.

In recent years, studies have also shown racehorses can be powerful partners for therapy, including Equine-Assisted Therapy for treating veterans with PTSD and the Square Peg Foundation for students.

The Thoroughbred industry created the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, funded initially by Breeders’ Cup Ltd., The Jockey Club, and Keeneland Association. The TAA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that accredits, inspects, and awards grants to approved aftercare organizations to retrain, retire, and rehome Thoroughbreds using industry-wide funding.

Since 2012, the TAA has granted more than $20.7 million to accredited aftercare organizations and 11,000 Thoroughbreds have been retrained, rehomed, or retired by accredited organizations.

For much more on this topic, visit our Horses First page.

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