Unlike anything else, the Kentucky Derby has morphed into a rite of passage or place to be unlike anything else since it arrived on the seen with its first running in 1875. With over 100 years of history around it, and many generations to leave their mark, the Kentucky Derby has developed some tried and true Kentucky Derby traditions that seem to withstand the test of time. Many of the Kentucky Derby traditions we know today were ushered into existence, in some fashion, by Matt Winn. Winn was the face or front man for the race for almost 50 years. It could be the mint juleps, the over the top hats, “My Old Kentucky Home”, or any other items but what is not open for dispute is that these are traditions and these Kentucky Derby traditions are part of the “Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.”
KENTUCKY DERBY TRADITIONS
THE SONG – MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME
Many believe this is a song that has played at the beginning of the Kentucky Derby since its inceptions but that is not the case. In fact, records say that up until the 1920s it was the National Anthem that kicked off the Kentucky Derby. However, the Stephen Collins Foster song, stirred by Uncle Tom’s Cabin from Harriet Beecher Stowe, was added by Wynn after it gained popularity as a way to self-identify the Kentucky Derby with the crowds of fans. To this day, My Kentucky Home, is performed by the University of Louisville Marching Band, before the running of the “Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.”
THE DRINK – MINT JULEP
The Kentucky whiskey and mint concoction became a famous drink at the Derby from its inception. The historical significance of this Kentucky Derby tradition has been tied to and became a staple when a well-known Polish actress, Helena Modjeska, ordered the drink at a pre-Derby breakfast at the track and cherished it. Churchill Downs commenced serving it in its contemporary memento glasses in the late Nineteen Thirties, in part, because clubhouse consumers had been stealing their everyday glasses. It became a bigger draw to the drink and kept their normal glassware from vanishing. A true Kentucky Derby tradition win-win.
THE ATTIRE – HATS
The decorative hats worn by ladies to the race is a remnant of the past, a famous style at the Derby’s start and now nearly a dressing up for a present day elaborate occasion. Bringing out your “inner Southern belle, according to some, is something every women is encouraged to do. What is the pinnacle of the Southern belle? The hat. Does it feel a little English to you, like right off the boat English? Well it should since the founder of the Derby was modeling the race off others similar racing events in England. The tradition stuck and evens helps keep these lovely ladies from getting a sunburn (nice added byproduct). These Kentucky Derby traditions have been exploited by race promoters like Winn to market the Kentucky Derby to ladies and make it a see-and-be-seen occasion.
THE PEOPLE – CELEBRITIES
In another brilliant move, Winn deserves the credit for first mainstreaming celebrities and the Kentucky Derby. Kentucky Derby traditions like celebrities can be traced back to the nineteen Twenties with the likes of Ginger Rogers and Babe Ruth. Winn convinced them to attend and after cheering, partying, and have an amazing time the movement spread to other famous faces. From its early years and through nowadays, a dichotomy exists among the race’s spectators: the stars, millionaires and royalty in the clubhouse, and an extra raucous celebration happening inside the infield. The infielders capture a glimpse of the wealthy and well-known, and those inside the clubhouse get a kick from the revelry taking place within the infield. But at the end of the day, it is the Kentucky Derby and everyone cheers when the gates open.
THE FLOWER – THE ROSES
The garland of over 400 roses that is draped over the winner of the Kentucky Derby is one of the longest running and greatest Kentucky Derby traditions. It started innocently enough in 1896 when Ben Brush received an arrangement of white and pink roses. Eight years later the rose became the Kentucky Derby official flower. About 2o years later, one of the most popular catch phrases in sports became the unofficial slogan of the Kentucky Derby when Bill Corum, a sports columnist from New York, called the race the “Run for the Roses.” The garland, in its current form, showed up on the scene for the 58th edition of the race. The only change from year to year is the edition of the race adorned on the garland.
THE MONEY – GAMBLING
A turn of the century marketing campaign by progressive organizations to abolish bookmakers at the races threatened the survival of not simply the Kentucky Derby, but American horse racing in its entirety. Considered one of his first and most critical improvements, Winn embraced an alternate form of gambling, pari-mutuel betting, which eliminated the need for bookies collectively since payoffs were calculated by using pooling of bets. The technology to achieve this had come from France many years in advance, however hadn’t taken off within the states. So Winn needed to scramble throughout the United States to locate the machines and introduce them at Churchill Downs. That as they say is history.
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