The United States’ Premier Horse Race
“This Kentucky Derby, whatever it is,” wrote novelist John Steinbeck, “a race, an emotion, a turbulence, an explosion – is one of the most JL beautiful and violent and satisfying things I have ever experienced.” Billed with little exaggeration as “the greatest two minutes in sports,” the Kentucky Derby is the oldest continuously held sporting event in America and one of the most prestigious races in the world.
Although horse racing in Kentucky dates back to 1789, Louisville’s Churchill Downs didn’t officially open as the home of the Derby until almost 100 years later (when the purse for the famed race was just $1,000). The ten days of festivities begin in mid-April, the nicest time of the year in the Bluegrass State, when the dogwoods are in full, magnificent bloom.
Thunder Over Louisville, the largest annual fireworks display in the country, sets the events in motion, followed by the Pegasus Parade, the Great Hot Air Balloon Race, live concerts, and steamboat races, all washed down with rivers of mint juleps. For lodging between events, well-heeled Derby veterans have checked into the Seelbach Hotel since its 1905 opening. Its comfortable grandeur so impressed hotel guest F. Scott Fitzgerald that he set a scene from The Great Gatsby here.
Home fans not attending “The Run for the Roses” can enjoy “Dawn at the Downs,” beginning the Saturday before the Derby and continuing Monday through Thursday of Derby Week. The track is opened to the public from 7 A.M. to 10 A.M., and visitors can enjoy a Kentucky-style buffet breakfast while watching celebrity equines (and an occasional Derby contender) go through their training. If you happen to miss Derby season completely, you can relive the excitement of past races at the Kentucky Derby Museum, where the careers of its many champions are documented inspiringly.