Eighteen Things You Should Know About the Kentucky Derby


The Kentucky Derby takes place this Saturday, May 2. (Photos by Eclipse Sportswire unless otherwise noted)

America’s most famous horse race is this weekend, and whether you’re watching the Kentucky Derby live or attending a fabulous viewing party, no one wants to make a rookie mistake when discussing the race or your favorite horse’s chances. Read on to find the answers to 18 Kentucky Derby questions to make sure you know what you’re talking about, plus some bonus facts!

How long has the Derby been around?

The Kentucky Derby was first run in 1875, and the 2015 edition is the 141st running. It’s the youngest of the three Triple Crown races, with the Belmont first run in 1867 and the Preakness debuting in 1873. However, the Derby is the oldest continuously run sporting event in the U.S., since there were interruptions in both the Belmont and Preakness.

How old are the horses that run?

Only 3-year-olds are eligible to compete in the Triple Crown races. This means that any Thoroughbred has only one opportunity to win the Kentucky Derby in its lifetime.

If they can only run once, why aren’t there more horses in the Derby?

The Kentucky Derby field size has been limited to 20 starters since 1975, the year after a record 23 horses competed. The smallest field size is three (1892 and 1905), though in recent years the average is 19.4.


How do horses qualify for the race?

Aside from the 3-year-old age requirement, horses must earn their way in by participating in “prep” races in a system that began for the 2013 Kentucky Derby. These races, beginning in September prior to the Derby, are designated by Churchill Downs and carry a point value of 10, 50, or 100 points to the winner, plus points to second- through fourth-place finishers. The top 20 point earners make it into the starting gate, although two more can enter, and run only if there are scratches.

How much does it cost to run in the Derby?

All Derby entrants must be nominated to the Triple Crown, which costs $600 if done by the early deadline in late January or significantly more if done later, plus $25,000 to enter the Derby and $25,000 to start. So an owner will shell out at least $50,600 to run their horse in the Kentucky Derby.

Do female horses run in the race, too?

Yes, but rarely. It takes a special filly to compete in the Kentucky Derby, and with the new points system, fillies must run against males in prep races to get enough points to enter the starting gate. There have been three filly winners of the Kentucky Derby in 140 years – Regret (1915), Genuine Risk (1980) and Winning Colors (1988). The last filly to run in the race was Devil May Care, who finished 10th in 2010.

Who are the oldest trainer and jockey to win?

The oldest trainer is Art Sherman, winner of the 2014 Derby with California Chrome at age 77. The oldest jockey to capture the roses is Bill Shoemaker, who won at age 54 aboard Ferdinand in 1986.


How long is the Derby?

The Kentucky Derby is contested at 1 ¼ miles, though for the first 21 years of its existence the race was held at 1 ½ miles.

Do most of the Kentucky Derby winners come from Kentucky?

Owners, trainers and jockeys hail from all corners of the globe, but most of the horses that win the race are bred in Kentucky. In the history of the race, 106 of the 140 winners were bred in Kentucky, six in Florida and four each in Virginia and California. Kentucky’s neighbor to the south used to be a popular Thoroughbred breeding state, with three winners from 1879 to 1897 bred in Tennessee.

Why is the mint julep the signature drink of the Derby?

Bourbon is one of Kentucky’s signature industries, and the mint julep combines that liquor with sugar and mint. It’s been the traditional beverage of the race since the 1930s, and each year 120,000 mint juleps are served at the race. Find a recipe to make your own here.

Why is the winner draped in a blanket of roses?

In 1884, a pre-Derby party reportedly featured roses for all female guests, and it was so well-received that Col. M. Lewis Clark made the rose the official flower of the race that year. The 1896 Derby was the first year the winning horse was draped in pink and white versions of the flower, and in 1906 the garland of roses became tradition.

Who makes the garland of roses?

The garland of roses is made each year at a local Kroger supermarket by several of its “master designers” using more than 400 roses. The final product weighs 40 pounds.

What nicknames does the race have?

The race is known as the “run for the roses” in reference to the garland the winner is draped in. It’s also called “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” referring to the time it takes to run the race.


Are there other races on Derby day?

Yes. Like any race day, Derby day features a full card of races, but because it’s such an important day, there are several major graded stakes that also take place on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs. This year, that list includes the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic and Humana Distaff, Grade 2 Churchill Downs Stakes, Churchill Downs Distaff Turf Mile and American Turf Stakes, and the Grade 3 Pat Day Mile. Total purses for Derby day stakes is $4.05-million.

Does Churchill Downs race during other times of the year?

Yep. Like racing in many other parts of the country, Kentucky racing operates on a circuit of tracks. Churchill Downs races each May and June, September, and November. During the other months of the year, racing is conducted at Ellis Park, Kentucky Downs, Keeneland or Turfway Park.

How much money is bet on the Kentucky Derby?

Last year more than $129-million was bet on the Kentucky Derby alone, and nearly $187-million was wagered on the entire day’s races at Churchill Downs.

What’s the fastest the race has ever been run? What’s the largest margin of victory?

Secretariat ran the fastest Derby ever, stopping the clock in 1:59.40 in 1973. Four horses each won the race by a record eight lengths: Old Rosebud (1914), Johnstown (1939) and eventual Triple Crown winners Whirlaway (1941) and Assault (1946).

How many people attend the Kentucky Derby?

The race regularly attracts more than 150,000 attendees. Last year 164,906 cheering fans packed the track, second-highest attendance ever for the race.

Fast Facts

  • The Kentucky Derby winner is the only horse that will grace the infield winner’s circle each year. All other race winners use the grandstand winner’s circle.
  • Bay is the most popular coat color of Derby winners, with 52 since 1875. Chestnuts may have a better chance of winning, though, as they have won 33 percent of Derbies (46) but only represent about 26 percent of foals born according to Jockey Club registry data.
  • The Kentucky state song, “My Old Kentucky Home,” has been performed at the race annually by the University of Louisville marching band since 1936.
  • “S” is the most popular first initial among Derby winners with 19 all-time, most recently Super Saver in 2010.
  • The Twin Spires have watched over Churchill Downs since 1895 and are one of the most recognizable structures in sports.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!