For Kentuckians, Derby is More than Special

NyQuist Kentucky Derby
NyQuist won the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby. Photo credit: Churchill Downs

Hop on an airplane in the United States and travel to any foreign country. When you land at the airport, ask the first local you meet what he or she knows about Kentucky.

You will usually hear one of two things: “Kentucky Derby or Kentucky Fried Chicken.”

These days, you may also hear: “Kentucky bourbon.”

Our Kentucky Colonels have put us on the map.

Col. Harlan Sanders founded Kentucky Fried Chicken, with his recipe of 11 secret herbs and spices, and it was Col. Matt Winn who saw the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, later formed a group to purchase the track and was the man who promoted the Kentucky Derby to prominence when he served as president of Churchill Downs.

Today, the first Saturday in May is like a holiday in the state of Kentucky. School children compete in stick-horse Derbies; restaurants have Derby breakfasts; neighbors and friends gather at Kentucky Derby parties and Derby pools are commonplace.

Most importantly, Kentuckians – those who know horses and those who don’t — all consider themselves a part of the wonderment and majesty that is the Kentucky Derby.

So many people want to be a part of the Derby that Kentucky Oaks day, the filly equivalent of the Derby run the prior day, has grown into its own well-attended event.

Now, many locals who cannot attend the Oaks or Derby are flocking to the track on the day before the Oaks, and that Thursday at Churchill Downs has been named Thurby.

As special as the Derby is, there is much more to the proceedings than a 10-furlong race for 3-year-olds.

The Derby festival stretches for weeks and affords thousands of people dozens of events in which to enjoy and/or participate.

From “Thunder Over Louisville,” the giant pyrotechnics display on the banks of the Ohio River that attracts upwards of 750,000 viewers every year, to a mini marathon, to a hot air balloon race, to a parade.

All in the name of the Kentucky Derby, the most famous horse race in the world, run in the state that produces the best Thoroughbreds in the world.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Well, the Kentucky Derby festival is a model for other sports. Not necessarily two weeks and dozen of events, but, for example, the Final Four and Super Bowl now encompass such things as Fan Zones and free concerts.

Because of the Kentucky Derby, there is the event, and there is everything surrounding the event. The Derby only takes around two minutes to run, but the planning goes on year-round.

But, unlike those other events, which take place in a different town each year, the Derby has been Kentucky’s signature event for 143 years.

Just ask any breeder, any owner, any trainer, any jockey, any groom, any hotwalker or any stud farm. They all want more than anything to be associated with the winner of the Kentucky Derby.

Just ask any server or bartender, because the night prior to the Derby is the biggest night for restaurants and bars in the bluegrass state.

Horse racing is a $4 billion industry in the state of Kentucky and the Derby, alone, generates roughly $400 million in economic impact, more than $125 million from the Derby festival alone.

The money means everything to the state. Kentuckians revere the horse, and Derby winners are, well, the most special of all.

We know not every Derby winner is a “great” horse, or often times even the best of his generation. That is irrelevant. The best horse under the Twin Spires on the first Saturday in May has his – or in a three cases, her – name etched in Thoroughbred racing lore forever.

When the horses head from the tunnel to the track, and My Old Kentucky Home is played, every Kentuckian is proud of the Derby – what it means, what it stands for, what is represents.

The best of the best; the names we revere and remember.

Just ask someone at the airport when you next visit a foreign land.

Then name off the 12 Triple Crown winners … and wonder when the 13th will begin his journey in Kentucky on the first Saturday in May.

For a Kentuckian, there is no day quite like it.

He tried. That’s all I can say – he tried.”

KENT DESORMEAUX, Synthesis, third
  • Dan Liebman

    Dan Liebman

      Dan Liebman attended his first Kentucky Derby in 1973 when, from the infield, he saw a glimpse of Secretariat, still today the greatest horse he has seen race. He later worked full time in equine journalism for more than 25 years, his last full time position as Editor in Chief ...

      Full Bio >

    More From Dan Liebman