An Adventure in U-turns

“Run for the Roses” – The Kentucky Derby


“The Run for the Roses” or “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports,” the Kentucky Derby is a 1.25 mile race for three-year-old thoroughbred horses. The Kentucky Derby draws an average of 150,000 visitors each year, including residents, out-of-towners, celebrities, presidents, and even members of royal families.”

An average of 150,000 visitors each year?  Try a record breaking 165,307 in 2012!  And there are seats for 50,000 so where do the other 110,000+ sit?  They don’t.  They mill about all over the place, including the infield where, “On average, 80,000 people spend their Derby Saturday partying in the infield. It’s crowded, the ground is the only sitting area, and nearly everyone is drinking.”  If you don’t like crowds, this is not the party place for you!

Dale and I didn’t plan on touring Churchill Downs.  A friend of mine suggested we do, she said when she and her husband where in Kentucky they went on the tour plus saw other sites in the area.  Boy, are we glad we did!  What an experience!  And we learned so many facts that the general public isn’t aware of, as in the above information.

We did all the tours; the Barn and Backside tour, Inside the Gates walking tour and the historic walking tour.  Our tour guides were chock full of information and very animated about their “Churchill Downs.”

007Arriving at 8:30 a.m., we started with the Barn and Backside tour.  This was fascinating.  (I may use that adjective numerous times!)  The early morning was the time to see the horses in action as the trainers and riders were out on the track.  The horses are young.  They are typically two-years old, at three they begin to professionally race.  Some horses seem to know the ropes so to say and others are just beginning, learning how to run straight rather than fight the rider by skipping, jumping and throwing it’s head.

What I found fascinating is the majority of riders were hispanic.  I asked our guide why and he said that in the history of horse racing the first riders were freed slaves who remained on the plantations after the Civil War.   They continued to care for the owner’s horses.

On May of 1875, the first Kentucky Derby was run and a young, black boy, “In fact, 13 of the 15 riders in that first Kentucky Derby were African-Americans. In the years following the Civil War, black jockeys dominated horse racing at a time when it was America’s most popular sport. African-American riders were the first black sports superstars in the United States, and they won 15 of the first 28 runnings of the Kentucky Derby.”  The young fellow’s name is Oliver Lewis, “Jockey Oliver Lewis spurred on his chestnut colt Aristides to a one-length victory in the fastest time ever recorded by a three-year-old horse.”  (link to article)

In the early 1900’s to the 1950’s the jockeys were predominately white and then in recent history, the riders and jockeys are hispanic, largely due to the fact that South America also enjoys horse racing and jockeys from South America are looking for the chance at a more famous and higher paying future.

I also learned on this tour that every horse in training has a “calming” horse buddy.  If you watch the Derby, or any horse race, you will notice a horse that is a companion to the racing horse.  This companion is specifically to calm the race horse.  The calming horse must be a real laid back horse.  We saw many calming horses out on the track during training.

The backside has all of the horse barns and at our time of tour, there were 1,000 horses housed.  The barns are leased from Churchill Downs but a few are owned privately.  All of the workers from the muck rakers all the way up to the trainers begin work at 6 a.m., starting with brushing the horse, taping, saddling, training and bathing.  It takes about 4 hours from start to finish.

Inside the Gates tour was all about MONEY and lots of it.  We were able to see the entry where all of the “important” people arrive in their limousines; from Hollywood stars to professional athletes to the Queen of England, however, she was “snuck” up the back way on a freight elevator, so the story goes.

We were able to sit where people pay big money to sit, from $5,000 a seat to $40,000 and up as you reserve closer to the front for a window view and these tables are contracted on a 5 year basis.  And then there is the Mansion, decorated to the hilt in the comfort of a mansion.  I forgot how much this cost but it is booked for 2014, as all of these fancy pants places are.  The regular folk, like you and me, are either in the exposed seating, milling around the grounds (T.V.’s are everywhere) or in the infield partying it up.  And by the way, the guide said whatever you think can happen in the infield, does.

about $500 a seat

about $500 a seat

about $30,000 a table, contracting for 5 years

about $40,000 a table, contracting for 5 years

The Mansion, top floor, and no one can tour this!

The Mansion, top floor, and no one can tour this!

After our historic walking tour, we ended our time at Churchill Downs with lunch.  Of course, I had to try the Mint Julep.  “Do people consume alcoholic beverages at Derby?  Yes! In 2012, over Derby weekend (meaning the race days of Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks combined), Churchill Downs sold approximately 120,000 Mint Juleps and around 425,000 cans of beer. That is a lot of drinks.”  (  And the mint julep cost $12.00, mine in the restaurant was $10.00 with the take home souvenir glass.  It is said that the mint julep profits $920,400 during race weekend!  Speaking of raising prices, hotels in the area charge on average $500.00 a night verses $50.00 any other time!

So “Why the fancy hats?  Extravagant and decorative hats are a fashion tradition for Derby-goers. It’s a fun and festive way to celebrate spring, keep the sun out of your eyes and look gorgeous. Traditionally, women wore the lavish hats, but more recently, men have gotten in on the fun, too.”  ( I believe, if I heard correctly, that in 1902, the president of the Churchill Downs, Mr.Winn, traveled to Hollywood inviting the starlets to the Kentucky Derby and encouraged them to come in their fancy finery.  They did and the tradition continues to this day.

If any of you should come to Kentucky, you must  tour Churchill Downs, you will not regret spending the day there.

Today we are in Nashville, Tennessee.  We agree we have left behind the quiet of the mid-northern states.  The campground is full and situated along the interstate; we have left behind the silence of the great woods.

More photos of Churchill Downs

Winner's Circle

Winner’s Circle



Aristides, the first winning horse at the 1875 Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs


All winning horses and the year are listed on the buildings.


This entry was published on October 10, 2013 at 7:55 am. It’s filed under Kentucky and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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