May 4, 2013

Kentucky Derby Day

Since today is the 139th Kentucky Derby I thought I’d write a little about some of the Derby’s history.

In some ways, things haven’t changed much. Tens of thousands of people would go to the track at Churchill Downs. The crowd started to appear early in the week in their cars or on trains. Special trains came in from cities like New York and Cincinnati. Hotels were usually fully booked. The Brown Hotel, which opened in 1923, was popular with visitors. The Derby was a fashion parade where some women went to show off their style. A single dressmaker could have orders of up to 1,500 dresses. Women wore dresses or, if they were more fashion forward - a suit with a jacket. Hat and gloves were also fashionable.

 Clubhouse view at the 1926 Derby.  [Via]

Some traditions actually started in the 20s. The playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” at each Derby was first recorded in the Louisville Courier Journal in May 8, 1921. Though the exact year the song was first played isn’t certain, a Kentucky owned horse, Behave Yourself, won that year and according to the Courier-Journal,

“To the strains of 'My Old Kentucky Home,' Kentuckians gave vent their delight. For Kentucky triumphed in the Derby.” 

 In 1929, the song was reported to have played repeatedly during the day and was probably first played as the horses gather on the track in 1930. In 1930 to the Philadelphia Public Ledger reported,

"When the horses began to leave the paddock and the song 'My Old Kentucky Home' was coming from the radio, the cheering started." 

A trophy wasn’t introduced until 1922 when the Ben Block, the owner of the champion, Morvich, was given a six-piece gold buffet service. In 1923, the owners of the winning horse Zev, where given an actual trophy. 1924’s winner, Black Gold was given a golden trophy to commemorate the 50th running of the Derby with a Golden Jubilee. The trophy is now thought to be the only solid gold trophy annually presented at a sporting event in America.

Here's some footage of the 1920 and 1929 races, respectively:  

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