Stuart Forster heads to Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, the venue of the Kentucky Derby, to visit the Kentucky Derby Museum.
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Winning the Kentucky Derby
I’m laughing so hard that I almost fall off my horse.
My chances of ever being a winning jockey in the Kentucky Derby are beyond slim. And my waistline expanded beyond slim years ago.
The horses that participate in the race that’s known as ‘The Run for The Roses’ carry up to 126 pounds (57 kilograms). After all the good food and bourbon that I’ve been enjoying in Kentucky, I’m weighing roughly double that.
So think of the longest long shot in history and multiply it by a million. Maybe more. Those are just about the odds of me ever jockeying a horse in any kind of race at the famous Churchill Downs racecourse.
Yet here I am participating in a video simulation at the Kentucky Derby Museum and, somehow, I’m romping home to a win. Sitting astride a plastic horse and facing a video screen, I’m howling with laughter.
The subtly lit museum at Churchill Downs is interactive, fun to visit and informative.
Churchill Downs museum
Visitors enter the derby museum through starting stalls.
With a timed ticket to view the 18-minute video that’s screened in an oval theatre reminiscent of the shape of the Churchill Downs racetrack, I swivel on my stool and watch the action above. Dramatic music builds along with the volume as the film progresses. The video conveys the excitement and passion of Derby Day on the final day of the Kentucky Derby Festival.
While attendees in the stands dress in finery the infield area has a party atmosphere.
A model of the most recent winner, draped in a blanket of red roses, the symbol of victory, stands in the museum. That’s why it’s known as ‘the Run for the Roses’. A floral wreath was first presented in 1896 but it was not until 1932 that the first official Garland of Roses was commissioned.
The winner of the Kentucky Derby also receives a solid gold trophy and $1.86 million in prize money. About 10% of that goes to the jockey and about 10% of the trainer. The purse is $3 million.
Running in the Kentucky Derby
Three-year-old horses with the highest earnings used to qualify for the race. Now a points system determines the 20 horses that will be entered into the Kentucky Derby.
The Kentucky Derby is run on the first Saturday in May. Race day is, of course, a major sporting event and it’s also one of the high points in Kentucky’s social calendar.
History of Churchill Downs
Churchill Downs Racecourse was founded by Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. He was the grandson of William Clark, one of the famous explorers who give their names to the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804 to 1806.
After experiencing racing in England and France in 1872, including the Epsom Derby, Clark Jr. returned to Louisville inspired to establish a racecourse. He established the Louisville Jockey Club.
He leased land for a racetrack from his uncles, John and Henry Churchill. The name of the track, Churchill Downs, pays tribute to the two brothers.
The first Kentucky Derby was run in 1875 and won by a horse named Aristides. Approximately 10,000 people attended. Mary Clark, Clark Jr.’s wife, played a key role in involving members of society so that attending Derby Day was seen as a fashionable event.
Tour of Churchill Downs
The first winner of the Kentucky Derby was a horse named Aristides ridden by Oliver Lewis.
“Aristides was not actually supposed to win the first Kentucky Derby. His trainer had two horses in the race and he told Oliver Lewis, Aristides’ jockey, to go to the lead and set the pace,” says Alex, my guide for a group tour at the racecourse.
“When they hit the stretch, this other horse’s name was Chesapeake, would be there to take the lead and win the Derby. When they did it the stretch, Chesapeake was nowhere to be found, so the trainer rushed on down and waved over Lewis to become the first Kentucky Derby winner on Aristides,” adds Alex.
Hard times for the race
The first few Kentucky Derbies were well attended but then the race fell on hard times. Attendances dropped and field sizes fell.
“In 1891 a horse named Kingman won the Kentucky Derby. Kingman holds the record here at Churchill Downs for the slowest-ever won Kentucky Derby,” explains Alex.
“There were only four horses in the race and all four jockeys got the exact same instructions from their trainers – to lay off the pace and not immediately go to the lead. As you can imagine, it was not only a very slow race but also a very boring race. The next day the newspapers called it the Kentucky Funeral Procession,” he adds, eliciting laughter from the group.
Matt Winn at Churchill Downs
In the early years of the last century, Matt Winn became the general manager and eventually president of Churchill Downs. He started a lot of the traditions today associated with the famous horse race.
Winn invited celebrities to the race, which in turn raised crowd attendance. He helped turn it into a sporting spectacle rather than just a horse race over 1¼ miles.
The Kentucky Derby Museum does a fine job of conveying the history and traditions of the race.
Mint Julep recipe
Get into the spirit of the Kentucky Derby by pouring yourself a Mint Julep.
The Mint Julep is celebrated as the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. The principal ingredient is bourbon whiskey, a beverage celebrated along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Make your own Mint Juleps at home by first boiling up a pint of a simple syrup mixture. To do that, mix together equal measures of sugar and water in a pan and heat it to create a syrup. Then add 10 springs of fresh mint and let the liquid cool. Store it in a closed container and refrigerate the mint-flavoured syrup overnight.
Mix together two ounces (50 millilitres) of bourbon whiskey and a tablespoon (15 millilitres) of the minty syrup. Add ice and mint to garnish.
Map of Churchill Downs
The map below shows the location of the Churchill Downs horse-racing track in Louisville, Kentucky:
Google Map of Churchill Downs and The Kentucky Derby Museum.
Travel to Louisville, Kentucky
Flying to Louisville Mohammad Ali International Airport puts you within a 10-minute drive of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Museum.
On 5 June 2023, British Airways begins operating direct flights from London Heathrow to Cincinnati Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG). The airport in northern Kentucky is approximately 100 miles northeast of Churchill Downs and 95 minutes’ drive from the famous racecourse.
Hotels in Louisville, Kentucky
Search for accommodation in Louisville via Booking.com:
Books about Churchill Downs & the Kentucky Derby
Planning a trip to Churchill Downs? You can buy the following books from Amazon by clicking on the links or cover photos:
Churchill Downs: America’s Most Historic Racetrack by Kimberly Gatto:
Visiting the Kentucky Derby Museum
The Kentucky Derby Museum is at Churchill Downs racecourse (704 Central Avenue) in Louisville, Kentucky. Visit the museum website for up-to-date information about opening times and entry prices.
Head to the Go To Louisville website for things to see in Louisville. Find more things to do in Kentucky on the Kentucky Tourism website.
Stuart Forster, the author of this post, is an award-winning travel writer. His work has been published by The Telegraph, Love Exploring and Trip Reporter.
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
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