Beginner’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby

by | Dec 9, 2022 | Blog

4 - Minutes Read Time

What Is the Kentucky Derby?

The Kentucky Derby is widely considered to be one of the most prestigious events in the world of horse racing. A Grade I stakes race for three-year-old Thoroughbreds, the Derby is the first of the American Triple Crown races and is the most-watched horse race of the year.

The Derby itself dates back to the 1870s, while the Triple Crown was first officially launched in 1930, encompassing the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont Stakes and the Preakness Stakes. Winning the Triple Crown is one of the most prestigious accomplishments any racer can earn — to date, only thirteen horses have done so.

Horses running at the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs

Where Is the Kentucky Derby?

Each year, the Kentucky Derby is held at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. It typically attracts upwards of 150,000 visitors to Louisville as racing enthusiasts gather to watch the race live.

When Is the Kentucky Derby 2023?

The Kentucky Derby is held on the first Saturday of May, with the 2023 derby being held on Saturday, May 6th. The festivities aren’t just limited to the day of the Derby — on Friday, May 5th, the running of the Kentucky Oaks will take place. This race of 3-year-old fillies attracts large crowds, and the race organizers will partner with a charity to raise money for breast and ovarian cancer awareness (spectators traditionally wear pink in honor of the cause), making it an exciting and impactful way to kick off the weekend.

Kentucky Derby 2014 Walkover

Prior to the race, owners and trainers participate in a “walkover” from the barns to the Churchill Downs paddock, showing off their competitors to fans. Photo by Bill Brine.

How Many Horses are in the Kentucky Derby?

The only horses eligible for the race are three-year-old thoroughbreds, meaning every Derby represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for each racer on the track. Only twenty horses get a spot at the Derby’s opening gate each year, making it a highly competitive qualification process.

Derby hopefuls participate in a series of 35 preparation races known as The Road to the Kentucky Derby. During each race, horses earn Derby points based on their performance. Once all races in the Road have finished, the top twenty point earners are offered a spot in the Kentucky Derby. The only exception to this is in the event of a withdrawal, at which point the following four horses in the point standings are eligible to enter in order of their ranking.

How Many Laps are in the Kentucky Derby?

The Kentucky Derby is a 1.25-mile race held on a one-mile-long dirt track, meaning the race itself is roughly one and quarter laps in distance.

A statue of Aristides sits in the paddock at Churchill Downs to commemorate the Derby's first winner.

A statue of Aristides sits in the paddock at Churchill Downs to commemorate the Derby’s first winner.

History of the Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby was first held on May 17, 1875, inspired by the success of the Epsom Derby in England. The race was founded by Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Clark traveled to Europe in 1872 and was impressed by the popularity of horse racing there, so he decided to create a similar event in the United States.

The first Kentucky Derby was attended by over 10,000 people and was held at the Louisville Jockey Club, which would later become Churchill Downs. Aristides took home the very first Derby win, ridden by jockey Oliver Lewis. Some of the most notable moments in Kentucky Derby history include the victories of Secretariat in 1973, who set a new record for the fastest time in the race, and American Pharoah in 2015, who became the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 37 years.

Today, the Kentucky Derby continues to be one of the most highly anticipated events in horse racing and attracts millions of viewers from around the world. It is a true celebration of American culture and tradition and remains a beloved and iconic event.

Red roses at the Kentucky Derby. Photo by Bill Brine.

The Kentucky Derby is often called the Run for the Roses, as each year, the first-place finisher is given a garland of red roses in the winner’s circle. Photo by Bill Brine.

Kentucky Derby Traditions

The Kentucky Derby is known for more than just racing — here are some of the distinctive traditions that have evolved around the race:

  • Before the start of the race, the song “My Old Kentucky Home” is played, with many attendees singing along. The song was written by Stephen Foster in 1853 and has been a tradition at the Derby since 1921.
  • Mint Juleps are the traditional beverage of choice for attendees. A mix of bourbon, mint, and sugar that’s traditionally served in a silver or pewter cup, the Mint Julep has been the official drink of the Kentucky Derby since 1939. Almost 120,000 of the cocktails are served at Churchill Downs Racetrack over Derby weekend each year.
  • After the race, the winning horse is draped with a garland of red roses, which has been handcrafted by florists from the Kroger Company since 1987.  The presentation of flowers to the winner has been a tradition since 1896, with the first modern garland bestowed in 1932 to Burgoo King. Today, designers comb through thousands of roses to select around 400 of the highest-quality ones for the garland each year.
  • The enormous and spectacular hats worn at the Kentucky Derby are one of the most memorable traditions in horse racing. The tradition of wearing hats to the Derby dates back to the early days of the race and has become an integral part of the event, with the most outrageous and fashionable hat-wearers attracting lots of attention both at the race and on social media. Outside of the main event, spectators also gather at parties and galas to showcase the latest in southern fashion.
Three men at the Kentucky Derby wearing hats

Fashion is a big part of Kentucky Derby weekend, with spectators going all-out with intricate hats. The Green Sheet Racing team is no exception!

What to Expect at This Year’s Kentucky Derby

Lots of fun! The Kentucky Derby is the biggest horse racing event of the year, filled with music, get-togethers, unique fashion and passionate bettors. You can follow this year’s Derby hopefuls on their journey down The Road to the Kentucky Derby on our points leaderboard.

Betting on the Kentucky Derby is one of the most exciting aspects of horse racing, with the current record for the total amount bet on the Derby sitting at $250.9 million in 2019. The event attracts more wagers than any other race of the year — meaning that you have a chance to win big. If you want the best possible chance of earning a major payout at this year’s Kentucky Derby, Green Sheet Racing’s expert handicappers have the strategy and insights you’ll need to take your betting to the next level.

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You will get discount. Daily Racing Tip Sheet which ranks horses based on gate position and provides recommended picks for each race and various betting strategies (i.e. Daily Double, Pick Three, Pick Four, Pick Five, Pick Six and Exacta/Trifecta/Superfecta Box). Daily Racing Tip Sheet which ranks horses based on handicap strength and provides recommended picks for each race and various betting strategies (i.e. Daily Double, Pick Three, Pick Four, Pick Five, Pick Six and Exacta/Trifecta/Superfecta Box).