Thursday, April 9, 2009

Run for the Roses

The most exciting two minutes in sports, the biggest race in North America, the most sought after win, that coveted blanket, the first Saturday of May.

Yes, here I go again: the Kentucky Derby.

I have said it time and time again, but this really is a very important race. Three year-olds all across North America are pointed in toward this race, but only twenty of them will even get the chance to stand in the starting gates.

The technical aspects of this race have been covered in a previous blog, but just in case you either did not read that entry or have merely forgotten, here is a reminder. The Kentucky Derby is an annual race run at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky every first weekend in May. Fillies or colts are allowed to run in the race so long as the animal is three years of age. The horses also have to qualify for the race for only twenty horses are allowed spots in the starting gates. To qualify horses generally have to either have earned a certain amount of money or have won so many graded (important) races.

Once a horses makes the line-up for the Derby, they are expected to run over ten furlongs which is the equivalent to a mile and a quarter. This race is run over dirt and takes the field around two corners. The two corners and the distance is usually a new thing for these horses as the prep races for the Derby tend to be short and rarely have two turns. This is one of the many things that can cause a horse to experience running problems.

Because of all the problems that can occur, the truly best horse may not win, but the one that does overcomes many obstacles and deserves the honor that comes with that win. In Jeremy Plonk's article, Derby Worries are Multiple, some of the more common reason are outlined.

The problem he focuses on in this article is that more and more tracks are switching to a synthetic surface which is proving to be easier on the fragile horses' legs. However, this new surface also favors a different running style than dirt or turf tracks. The Kentucky Derby is ran on the dirt, therefore many horses are coming into this race without ever running on real dirt. Plonk combats this problem by going into the plethora of other challenges that go hand in hand with running the Derby.

"Last I checked, it takes a great horse — at the very least a great performance — to win the Kentucky Derby," Plonk says in his article, and he is right. There are so many things to overcome besides the surface that a horse has to be focused and at the top of his or her game to win this prestigious race.

Being the biggest single race in North America, the horses in the race are faced with many new experiences all at once. The sheer size of the crowd is enough to get under any horse's skin. The paddocks are packed with spectators while the horses are being saddled. The horses are met by a band and song filled stands as soon as they set foot on the track. The inside of the tracked is crammed with hundreds of drunken partiers. Lastly, the field itself is huge. Twenty horses is more than most race will ever see. Even the Breeder's Cup races at the end of the year average about ten or twelve horses per race.

With all these factors these flighty horses get nervous, and this tends to crack their focus usually resulting in a poor performance. Should the horse somehow manage to stay calm and focused, they still have to fight the other nineteen horses for the lead. As can be imagined, finding that perfect spot or opening is near impossible with that many horses, which is why, as Jeremy, the best horse does not always win. Luck plays a big factor.

All these challenges makes it hard to pick a winner for the Derby, but history has some helpful tips for those new to the game.

Certain colors are more likely to win the Derby. In the 134 runnings of the race, it was won by forty-seven bays, forty-three chestnuts, the remaining few being black, grey, or roan. Although this seems to a good way to pick a winner, generally speaking most Thoroughbreds are either a bay or chestnut. This means they have more horses which means more chance to win. So if you are hoping for a grey to win you may want to consider a bay back up.

Geldings and fillies also tend to be a bad idea for your winning pick. Although fillies have come close to winning like Eight Belles did with her second place finish last year, only three have won in the history of the race. The first filly to win was Regret in 1915. When she was born, her owners named her Regret because they regretted that she was a filly because her bloodlines suggested greatness, which she obviously lived up to. Geldings win the race a little more frequently, but it is still a great feat. This is why Funny Cide in 2003 became such a fan favorite. Everyone loved rooting for the gelding underdog.
Surprisingly Kentucky Derby winners tend to all be from the same state. Not so surprisingly, Kentucky has spawned a hundred of its races winners. The state with the next highest wins is Florida with only six horses to win.

Away from all the technical stuff, the Kentucky Derby has many fun traditions that are celebrated annually.

The Mint Julep is the cocktail of the Derby. The Night before the race and all day during, these yummy drinks are available for all of age to enjoy. Mint Juleps have been the Derby's official drink since 1938 and an average 120,000 will be enjoyed for years to come.
Another favorite Derby tradition is the fabulous hats. Many women wear very elegant hats for the day while many others simply try to create the most absurd hat they can. Each year there is an award for the most beautiful hat, and the most creative and fun.
The Kentucky Derby just wouldn't be the Kentucky Derby without the playing of My Old Kentucky Home. As mentioned, as the horses make their way to the gates the crowd joins in singing of Kentucky's state song. Each year the University of Kentucky lines up near the winner circle and begins to lead the stands in song. For horses this tends to be an unnerving moment, but for trainers and jockeys alike, the song goes right through them, bringing even the veterans to tears.

There is also a special winner circle at Churchill Downs where only the Derby winner and his or her connections may stand. It is a dream of many to have their own horse in that circle. Here horses receive the coveted blanket of roses. Although many big races place a flower blanket over the winning horse, the roses is exclusive to the Derby and only a handful of horses will ever be allowed such an honor.
Opening the infield to spectators is another special thing about the Derby. Usually the inside of the track is off limits to anyone but track hands, but this one day the infield is opened to the public, and so begins the biggest party since Woodstock. Hundreds of people pack into inside of the track to be loud and get drunk. Those who go to the infield party are rarely there to watch the race, just because it is extremely unlikely to see a horse tail, let alone the winner. So if you are looking for fun, try the infield, otherwise stick to the grandstands.

While researching the Derby for this entry I came across a wonderful site for the 135th Kentucky Derby. The site has all the information you could want about Derby past and future. I have been visiting the site daily since I found it. It gives updates of the horses prepping for the Derby as well as videos and horse profiles. My favorite aspect about the site is the silk strand of the horses already excepted into the race. There are currently thirteen horses set to run, leaving only seven spots remaining for other Derby hopefuls.

If you wish to learn more about the Kentucky Derby and its runners, I highly suggest you check out that site. It will answer more questions than I can.
One of these days I will get tickets for the Kentucky Derby, and that will probably be one of the most fun, emotional, and all around best days of my life.

From the time this is posted...there is only...twenty-three days...and fifty-six minutes until the Kentucky Derby...GET EXCITED!


  1. You've made me a little homesick! When I was in KY this weekend, one of the boutiques in my town already had their Derby hats on display.

    I've never been to the Derby, but I love to watch it and hear "My Old Kentucky Home." When you eventually get there, you should take one of the horse farm tours around Lexington. I truly think there's no scenery more beautiful than the slightly rolling hills and white fences in central Kentucky.

  2. Yea, just driving through Lexington was a decent glimpse of how gorgeous the place is. That tour sounds like a cool thing to check out, and since Lexington is on our stop list anyway it seems like a total possiblity. Thanks for the idea!