Derby Days: 2009

With law school finals fast approaching, some quick and mindless distraction (that’s what she said):

The 135th Kentucky Derby will be held May 2, 2009 in staid Louisville, Kentucky, capping the two weeks prior, known as the Kentucky Derby Festival. For the past 134 years, three-year old geldings, colts and fillies have run in the 1.25 mile event at Churchill Downs, known as the “most exciting two minutes in sports.” The race is the first leg of the U.S. Thoroughbred Triple Crown (taking place before the Belmont Stakes and the Preakness Stakes) and annually draws 155,000 spectators, bettors, hooligans, bookies, English nobles, Vineyard Vines reps and road-tripping frat boys (who confine themselves to the Infield).

Churchill Downs' Twin Spires

Churchill Downs' Twin Spires

As with most things Kentucky, the Derby carries its own touted heraldry, pomp and tradition. Mint juleps (iced bourbon, mint and sugar) keep onlookers cool in frosted silver cups, while “burgoo” (lamp and vegetable stew) is served from ten-foot wide iron pots. Immediate off-track betting is legal and shifty bookies roam the Infield, where the price of admission is reasonable. Not so in “Millionaires’ Row,” the Derby-time home of Hollywood stars, financiers, English nobility, Puff Daddy and more. Dress code for women includes long dresses, umbrellas and over-sized hats, and for men: anything plaid, madras, tweed and foppish.

Known often as the “Run for the Roses,” the Derby’s most elegant tradition (juleps aside) may be its garland of red roses, given yearly to the winning animal ever since E. Berry Wall, New York socialite, gave red roses to his female guests at post-Derby soirees in 1883. Although he wasn’t given a rose then, Wall’s guest, Colonel M. Lewis Clark, enjoyed the pageantry so much that years later, as president of Churchill Downs, he revived Wall’s tradition and made the red rose official flower to the Derby. The first garland was given in 1896, and today the honor of awarding the roses and trophy falls to Kentucky’s governor (this year, former attorney – and attorney general – Steve Beshear).

Derby fan Jack Nicholson

Derby fan Jack Nicholson

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