17 Fascinating Facts You Never Knew About the Kentucky Derby

Updated: May 25, 2024

You'll never believe how many roses are used at the Run for the Roses.


1. It has a connection to Lewis and Clark

In 1872, Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., the grandson of that Clark, went to the Epson Derby in England. When he got back to the States, he started a racing club called the Louisville Jockey Club and raised enough money to build a permanent racetrack in Louisville.

2. It’s the longest running sporting event in the U.S.

The first Kentucky Derby was held on May 17, 1875. A crowd of 10,000 watched 15 three-year-old Thoroughbred horses race for 1.5 miles.

3. Aristides was the first Derby winner


The three-year-old chestnut Thoroughbred won the race in just over two minutes and 37 seconds. His jockey, Oliver Lewis, was 19 and never raced in the Derby again. Aristides’ trainer was Ansel Williams, a former slave.

4. The racetrack didn’t always have a name

It wasn’t until 1883 that Churchill Downs was first used to mark the racetrack that hosts the Derby. On the other hand, these are objects you never knew actually had names.

5. Its architecture is iconic

We’re talking about the Twin Spires atop the racetrack’s grandstand. As the Derby gained popularity, a new grandstand was constructed in 1894. When it was done, Joseph Dominic Baldez, who designed the structure, thought it still needed something extra to make it stand out, so he added two hexagonal spires to the top. Now people from around the world travel to Kentucky for a photo op with the Twin Spires.

6. The red rose is the race’s official flower


Roses first appeared at the Derby in 1896, when the winner Ben Brush was given a garland made of white and pink roses. In 1904, the red rose became the official flower of the Kentucky Derby. (Do you know the meaning behind each rose color?) Years later, sports columnist Bill Corum accordingly nicknamed the race the “Run for the Roses,” which, of course, stuck.

7. That famous rose garland is quite a sight

It’s made up of more than 400 red roses sewn on green satin, weighing more than 40 pounds. In the center of the garland is rose “crown,” with a single rose pointing up that symbolizes the heart and struggle needed to reach the Kentucky Derby Winner’s Circle. The number of roses in the crown is determined by how many horses compete in the Derby.

8. The trophy is pretty nice, too

The Kentucky Derby trophy is made of 14 karat gold and stands on a jade base. It’s 22 inches tall and weighs 3.5 pounds.

9. It’s always on the same day

The Kentucky Derby has been held on the first Saturday in May every year since 1946. While you watch the big race this May, be sure to tell these hilarious horse jokes.

10. The day before the Derby, there’s the Kentucky Oaks

Also founded by Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., the Kentucky Oaks is the premier race for three-year-old female horses, called fillies. The first Oaks race took place on May 19, 1875, two days after the first Kentucky Derby. Like the Derby, the winner also receives a garland, but it’s made of lilies instead of roses. It’s appropriately named “lilies for the fillies.” Spectators at the Kentucky Oaks are asked to wear pink to raise money and increase awareness of women’s health issues, specifically ovarian and breast cancers.

11. Only three fillies have won the Kentucky Derby

They were Regret (1915), Genuine Risk (1980), and Winning Colors (1988).

12. The smallest race was in 1892

Only three horses competed, making it the smallest field ever at the Kentucky Derby.

13. The fastest winner is Secretariat

He won with a time of 1:59.40 in 1973. Only two other horses have finished in under two minutes, according to ESPN.

14. Mint Julep is the drink of choice

mintjulepAndrew Pustiakin/Shutterstock

Almost 120,000 mint juleps are served every year over the weekend of the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby. That many drinks requires 1,000 pounds of fresh mint, 60,000 pounds of ice, and 10,000 bottles of Old Forester Mint Julep cocktail. That’s a lot of alcohol. Since alcohol makes you hungry, that explains why Churchill Downs sells 5.5 tons of local products at its concession stands each year. Get the original Mint Julep recipe here.

15. The Derby is known for fashion as much as it is for horses

When Clark founded the Derby, he envisioned it as an event society’s elite attended, just like races in Europe that required attendees to wear full morning dress. He used well-dressed, high-class folks to bring in his target audience for the first race, and it worked. Eventually, the Derby became a place to showcase the latest spring fashion. In the 1960s, women started wearing less traditional outfits, including extravagant hats the Kentucky Derby is known for today. Here’s how you can find the perfect hat for your face shape.

16. Spectators bet millions on the race each year

The 2015 Kentucky Derby set a record with $194.3 million from total wagers on- and off-track.

17. Thousands watch the race live every year

The largest attendance at the Kentucky Derby was in 2015, when over 170,000 people watched from the grandstand. That’s in addition to the millions of people who watch on TV; 16 million viewers saw the Derby 2015. Inspired to put “go to the Kentucky Derby” on your bucket list? Check out our bucket list adventures for the other 49 states.