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The Kentucky Derby: Tradition Reigns at the “Run for the Roses”

Posted by Rich Mancini on 1/19/2016
Posted in: Tauck’s Travelogue
Tags: Tauck, Tauck Events, Travel, USA, tradition, Kentucky, Kentucky Derby

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To me, from the wonderful “big hats” worn – and Mint Juleps sipped – by spectators at Louisville’s Churchill Downs to the garland of red roses adorning the winning horse, the Kentucky Derby is all about tradition. Some of the Derby’s many time-honored traditions date all the way back to the famous annual Thoroughbred horse race’s inception in the 1870s, and I’ve always felt that their pomp and pageantry contribute greatly to the fun and excitement of attending one of the world’s best-known sporting events in person. And as I look forward to the 142nd running of the Derby this coming May, I found the historic origins of these traditions themselves fun to explore.



Lutie and The Roses

kd_burgoo_kingTake those roses, for example. The tradition developed after the mercurial builder of Churchill Downs and founder of the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks – Meriwether Lewis (“Lutie”) Clark, Jr., the grandson of explorer William Clark of Lewis & Clark fame – first used roses to spruce up post-Derby celebrations in the race’s early days. By the turn of the 20th century, the Thoroughbred that won the Derby was being draped with a blanket of beautiful roses. The “modern” version bestowed upon the winner today, a garland featuring over 400 red roses sewn into a green satin backing, was first presented to Burgoo King, the winner of the Derby’s 58th running in 1932.

“Run for the Roses”
kd_derbyhatA few years earlier, in 1925, noted New York newspaper sports columnist and longtime Kentucky Derby radio commentator Bill Corum first used the phrase “Run for the Roses” to describe the Derby, and the nickname stuck. Nearly a quarter-century later, Corum was tapped to serve as president of Churchill Downs; during his tenure, he originated the first live TV broadcast of the race in 1952. And although haute couture had been a hallmark of the Derby since the first running in 1875 – when “Lutie” Clark promoted the race as a formal, European-style event that appealed to well-dressed, high-class men and women eager to show off the latest spring fashions – it wasn’t until the television era of the 1960s when the elaborate hats sported by women at today’s Derby started becoming a “thing.”


“Winn”-ing Traditions

But many of the longstanding Kentucky Derby traditions we know and love can be attributed to the man who saved both Churchill Downs and the Derby itself from financial ruin at the dawn of the 20th century – Louisville entrepreneur and racing enthusiast Colonel Martin J. (“Matt”) Winn. As a teenager, Winn had attended the very first running of the Derby with his father in 1875; as an adult, he led a group of investors that took over the racetrack and the race in 1902… and over the next four decades as president of Churchill Downs employed his marketing savvy and a host of innovations to build the Derby into the premier American cultural event it is today.
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The innovations and traditions Winn introduced or embraced over the years include:
• Establishing pari-mutuel betting as the standard form of gambling at the Derby, and installing the machines at Churchill Downs
• Popularizing the Derby as “The Run for the Roses” – and its sister race for fillies, the Kentucky Oaks, held the day before the Derby – as “The Run for the Lilies”
• Replacing the playing of the National Anthem (“The Star-Spangled Banner”) at the start of the Derby with Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home”
• Serving the traditional Mint Julep – the Derby drink of choice since it was popularized by Polish actress Helena Modjeska at the track in the 1870s – in keepsake souvenir glasses beginning in the 1930s (which also prevented clubhouse guests from stealing Churchill Downs’ glassware)
• Marketing the Derby and the Oaks as celebrity events; through Winn’s efforts from the 1920s on, both races began attracting movie stars, sports heroes, millionaires and politicians, as well as the general public

For a longtime Derby fan like me, all of these great traditions only add to the fun and enjoyment of watching the first leg of Thoroughbred racing’s “Triple Crown” each May. And when you attend the famous race in person at Churchill Downs, be sure to tip your oversized hat and raise your Mint Julep in a well-deserved toast to “Lutie” Clark, Helena Modjeska, Bill Corum… and especially Matt Winn.

You can experience all the excitement and tradition of the Kentucky Derby on the 5-day Tauck Event, Run for the Roses: The Kentucky Derby, and check out our collection of escorted tours online.
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