Put on your floppy hat and grab a Mint Julep, it's Derby time.
kentucky derby horse race
Credit: Jamie Squire / Staff / Getty Images

From sipping Mint Juleps to snacking on southern food favorites, the traditions associated with the Kentucky Derby, along with the race itself, have been 145 years—which is just part of the reason why it's such a popular event among race fans and casual observers alike. While it typically takes place on the first Saturday of May, this year it's been postponed due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. But the question still remains: What, exactly, is the Kentucky Derby, and why do we celebrate it today? It all boils down to the love of sport and the thrill of the race.

The Kentucky Derby, Explained

The Kentucky Derby is the longest-running sporting event in the United States and takes place at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. The event pits 20 horses against one another as they race to earn one of the top five spots in the run. Before they can even line up at the starting line, however, the horses and their jockeys must first compete in a series of 35 races called the Road to the Kentucky Derby; these take place on racetracks around the world.

The top four horses to finish in each of the races are awarded points for their finishing rank, and the 20 horses with the most points will get to compete at the Derby for a whopping $2 million and the glory.

Why We Watch

On average, 155,000 viewers tune in to watch the horse race at Churchill Downs. Rachel Collier, director of communications for the Kentucky Derby Museum, says one of the main reasons why the race draws so much attention is because people love an underdog. "The longest longshot to ever win the Kentucky Derby was a horse by the name of Donerail, in 1913," she says. "At 91 to one odds, he turned a lot of heads and gained notoriety for the Kentucky Derby." A few years later, a female horse named Regret did what only three fillies (female horses) have ever done—won the Derby. "Many attributed these two years as turning points for the race that today, is the world-renowned Kentucky Derby."

Whether Collier is right about how society feels about rooting for an underdog, or the fashion choices that the Derby is known for—big floral dresses, seersucker suits, and oversized hats can all be found on viewers at both the Downs and at home—one thing's for sure: the allure of the race brings viewers back year-after-year.


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