Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Derby week, traditions, and mint juleps - I love you Kentucky!

It's Derby week here in Kentucky and while Derby Festival activities technically kicked off with Thunder Over Louisville a couple of weekends ago, this week is certainly the week to be in Louisville. I overheard someone say nothing was going to be getting done up there this week, and if that's true - then so be it! Derby Festival is a huge ordeal leading up to the main event - the Run for the Roses on Derby Saturday. Around here we grow up not only learning about our state's past, but the proud traditions that are part of our history, present, and future.

Credit: Reed Palmer / CD via Churchill Downs

I still remember helping making Derby pie in my fifth grade class to celebrate Derby week, accompanied by mock (non-alcoholic) mint juleps. Many of our classroom activities for the week or so leading up to the race tied in with the traditions of the event. Among other things we designed and colored jockey silks and participated in a Derby hat making contest. We made our hats at home and then brought them in Friday before Derby and students from other classes would vote for the best ones. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners got ribbons. There were lots of plastic horses, fake green Easter grass, and red ribbon roses glued to those hats. And in some cases, for reason I can't fathom - glitter, so much glitter. I assure you, none were actually Derby worthy. Not mention, everyone once in a while someone would go a completely different direction - I still remember a boy bringing in a hat covered in tin foil. (No idea, but he thought it was hilarious. He also did not win.) Oh, how I wish I had photos of some of those hats... (This blog post will give you a pretty good idea on that hats, I just didn't want share a photo of someone else's kid.)

Having been born on Derby day I always associated my birthday with the event, but like most kids - my birthday trumped all. Many people who aren't attending still host Derby parties and spend the day playing friendly betting games while watching the races, but luckily (for me) my parents weren't those people and I got my birthday parties. I'm not as big on birthdays as I was back then, and since Derby is certainly more of an adult event (Mint juleps!) I can't believe I still haven't been. We have other plans so it's not happening this year, but I'm really hoping for next year! And if for some reason that doesn't work out - my birthday falls on Derby Saturday in 2015, so I'm declaring it now - I must attend. (There. Hold me to it blog world.)

While we're talking about it, I've never attended any kind of horse race actually, let alone bet on one. There is just something about the Derby, and being from this state, that makes me feel like it's a necessity to participate, to go, at least once. I'm feeling really oblivious to most other states' traditions since I've always lived here in Kentucky, but do other states have events like this? As much I have worked in, and do keep up with, the news I just can't think of any right off the top of my head. I'm sure no one in New York or California has a week centered around Derby history in their school curriculum, but I know the tradition does garner quite a bit of national attention. I'm assuming there is something comparative elsewhere that I just can't put my finger on right now? I would love to hear about it if your state or even local area has a tradition/event like Derby/Derby Festival, so please share!

‘The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved' print by Louisville graphic artist Rachel Sinclair, available here.
I know I didn't care about things like this when I was younger - I mean, I wanted to win that hat contest and everything - but I didn't grasp the importance of this tradition or any other really, and it certainly didn't occur to me that the Derby was so wonderfully unique to Kentucky. Now that I'm older it seems to have value. I find myself thinking about the future, not just attending the event, but when Jason and I have kids (one day, a long time away from now.) They may get to make Derby pies at school (they definitely will at home, since they are J's favorite and I have my own recipe,) they will get to design jockey silks of their very own, we will certainly introduce them to the Kentucky hot brown, and I'm sure we will do fun things on race day so they will feel like they are part of all the fun.

It might sound silly if you're not from around here (it may even sound silly if you are!) but I just think it's really neat how traditions, like this one specifically, carry over. Obviously that is what traditions do, but this is on a much bigger scale than having Christmas breakfast at your grandma's house every year. The fact that an event of this magnitude has continued on for 139 years now, the longest continuous sporting event in the U.S., and that so much about it has remained unchanged is fascinating. It's not just a horse race, and it never will be.

a few notes:
If you've never had a mint julep by the way, recipe here. I say skip the Early Times though and go for Knob Creek or Woodford Reserve instead!

Or, if you'd like to make your own Kentucky hot brown, check out this recipe.


  1. I'm from Kentucky also, and we just went to our first horse race a few weeks ago (at Keeneland in Lexington). It was SO cool. Now I am dying to go to the Derby!

  2. We are going to millionaires roll in july so it will be my first time going. But this reminded me that at school we use to use baseball bats and we would run around the baseball field and we would be named what the horses at the derby was named. lol awesome.


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