The 20 Best Traditions of the Kentucky Derby

Matt KingFeatured ColumnistMay 7, 2011

The 20 Best Traditions of the Kentucky Derby

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    It's hard to name anything in American culture that's more steeped in tradition than the Kentucky Derby. But let's face it, you try to do something 137 times without repeating a thing or two...or 20.

    Sure we all know about the hats and the mint juleps, but there's plenty of fun Derby stuff I bet you had no idea about. I know that because I had no idea about a lot of these until I got to experience them for myself.

    Eleven years I lived in Lexington and I'd never been to Churchill Downs, but thanks to the good folks over at Ram trucks, I finally got to experience all of that tradition firsthand. And you know what? It's kind of awesome.

    See for yourself.

No. 20: Hot-Air Balloons

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    The Kentucky Derby isn't just about one Saturday in May. People around here start celebrating about a month ahead of time with festival after festival.

    But the most impressive part comes the weekend before the Derby with the Derby Festival's Great Balloon Race. There's just something about seeing the sky filled with hot-air balloons that is just so awesome to behold.

No. 19: Jockey Silks

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    What may look like funny little outfits for us are some of the most revered parts of the Kentucky Derby.

    The jockey silks really mean something to the people that wear them and the people associated with them. It's like a coat of arms, except with way less protection.

    The Kentucky Derby Museum shows off a number of these and you can see the history and the progression they've made over the years.

    One thing is always the same, though. These are things the jockeys take great pride in. And come on, have you ever worn a silk shirt? Amazing.

No. 18: Pink Friday

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    For years it had been a smaller tradition for the ladies to wear pink to the Kentucky Oaks, the day before the Derby. For some it's just a hat or a bow, but for others they look like Ralphie from A Christmas Story.

    Eventually, Churchill Downs made it official with the help of the organization that can get even the toughest football players to sport bright pink: breast cancer awareness.

    So now Churchill Downs itself is decked out in pink and even the guys are encouraged to show how secure they are in their masculinity by pinking out. Only three years into this "official" tradition, I can already tell it's a big hit.

No. 17: RV Row

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    This may not be an official tradition, but talking to the locals and the regulars, this is something that's been happening for years.

    Let me set it up for you. Leaving the Derby is the biggest traffic jam of people you've ever seen. It's a mess. So they try to funnel you through specific routes to the few actual exits that aren't fenced in.

    One of the places you have to walk by most of the time is the giant row of RVs that people have set up down the line in the parking lot. Plenty of these people don't even go in to the Derby. They just sit out there and watch the race on TV. Then when everyone comes shuffling out, that's when the fun starts.

    These guys all park themselves in fold-out chairs and watch the procession of people go by, remarking on what they're wearing, offering beers, playing games and just overall craziness that's been going on in the infield just outside the walls.

    To some people, it's the most entertaining part of the day.

No. 16: Celebrities

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    LOUISVILLE, KY - MAY 02: Nick Lachey arrives at the 135th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 2, 2009 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Jeff Gentner/Getty Images)
    Jeff Gentner/Getty Images

    Even though they'll eventually make their way up to "Millionaire's Row," it's always fun to see the celebrities coming in. Because it's not often that Louisville, KY is a hot spot for the big names in show business.

    People will line the red carpets to see people up close that they've only seen on TV. It also gives the fun sense of "Hey, look! They're wearing a big hat and a dress just like me! We're the same!"

    And even for giant celebrities like Nick Lachey, when the Kentucky Derby is over, they still wish that they had just one more night...una noche.

No. 15: Derby Parties

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    This isn't a specific tradition to actually being at the Derby, but it's a tradition nonetheless. It allows folks who don't get a chance to go to the Derby to still experience all of the fun traditions with their friends and family.

    Just like the actual event, the race is sometimes secondary to just getting together, wearing your hats and dresses and drinking your mint juleps.

    People around the country all do it at the same time. It's like your Super Bowl party except your wife is much happier.

No. 14: Hot Browns

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    Ah yes, the south. We know how to make food to fill up your belly and your arteries.

    The hot brown is an open-faced turkey sandwich smothered in Mornay sauce (delicious) topped with tomatoes, bacon, cheese and pretty much anything else you want on it.

    Then you toast it until the sauce starts to turn—you guessed it—brown.

    Like burgoo, this is more of a "bring it yourself" tradition, or an after-Derby treat, but I'll be scouring the grounds to find one myself. I need to know what this tastes like.

No. 13: Derby Outfits

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    LOUISVILLE, KY - MAY 02: Kim Kardashian arrives at the 135th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 2, 2009 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Jeff Gentner/Getty Images)
    Jeff Gentner/Getty Images

    Women love to wear dresses. It's a scientific fact. So whenever there's a chance to dress up and look your best, they take full advantage of it.

    Now, this isn't prom. Leave the flowy stuff at home, it gets a little hot at the Derby most of the time. So form-fitting dresses that stop right around the knee are the norm. Throw in some gloves and 4" heels and you've got yourself the typical Derby outfit for the ladies.

    And while we may not like to admit it, guys like to dress up too. At the Kentucky Derby it's seersucker suits, Brooks Brothers, etc. You can go dark, but it's the lighter colors that really pop out there.

No. 12: The Kentucky Derby Trophy

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    LOUISVILLE, KY - MAY 01:  Jockey Calvin Borel kisses the 136th Kentucky Derby trophy in the winners circle after his win atop Super Saver on May 1, 2010 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    That's it? That's the trophy? I bet you were expecting something a little...bigger.

    Sure you were, but it's not the size that matters—it's what it's made of. This is pure gold, a combination of 20- and 14-carat gold to be exact.

    That little thing weighs over six pounds. Any bigger and a dude like Calvin Borel would have a hard time lifting it over his head.

    But even after all that, the gold of the trophy is just icing on the cake. All that really matters to these folks is earning one for themselves.

No. 11: Millionaire's Row

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    The great thing about the Kentucky Derby is the eclectic mix of people, but that's not to say Hugh Hefner is about to stand elbow to elbow with the guy with the torn Detroit Rock City T-shirt. That's what "Millionaire's Row" is for.

    Now, this may be a little hyperbole, as I'm sure there's plenty of hundred-thousandaires in there, but at tickets running well over $1,000 it tends to narrow the list of people who get them.

    And there are definitely plenty of millionaires around. The kind you know, like the celebrities that show up, and the old-money families from around the area alike.

    From the outside it looks like a compound or a castle. The inside is a banquet room with assigned seating and free food, short gambling lines and a great view just steps away. So, in other words, heaven.

No. 10: Sterling Silver Julep Cups

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    I got to check out the president of Churchill Down's room after a race and saw these beauties laying out. I had no idea what they were.

    Turns out, these are 12 sterling silver mint julep glasses. After the Kentucky Derby, the winners come back to the room and the governor of Kentucky toasts them with these glasses.

    I mean, sometimes after you've won a $2 million race, a regular glass just won't do.

No. 9: Gambling

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    This is not a concession stand.

    These are people lined up, ready to take a shot at getting lucky. The crazy thing about this picture is that there are more gambling kiosks on the opposite side of the room and the lines are so long that they're basically back to back, with people fighting like crazy to walk through the middle to get to the other side.

    You can go for the win, place or show, but even a $0.50 bet on a trifecta will pay off huge for you, so gather up those quarters, throw some numbers against the wall and wait for the most exciting two minutes in sports.

No. 8: Call to the Post

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    You all know how it goes.

    The Call to the Post let's everyone know the horses are on their way. But most importantly, if you haven't got your bet in yet, you better figure that out quick.

No. 7: The Infield

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    And of course, for every millionaire on Millionaire's Row, there are seven of these guys on the infield.

    The infield is the biggest frat party in the world. You've got characters in crazy outfits, college kids rolling around in mud, high schoolers trying to pretend they're not high schoolers and just the kind of folks who sure as heck didn't come to the Kentucky Derby to be all prim and proper.

    The infield is not for the faint of heart, but if you can handle it, it might just be the most fun you have at the race.

No. 6: Garland of Roses

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    They don't call it the run for the roses just because it sounds good.

    I believe it was Bon Jovi who talked about a bed of roses, but this blanket of roses is definitely the coolest rose-adorned accessory I've seen.

    It's over 400 roses sewn on to a blanket. As if that wasn't enough, 60 long-stemmed roses are handed to the winning jockey as well.

    Because sometimes when you're racing along life, you have to stop and smell the roses—after you cross the finish line, of course.

No. 5: Burgoo

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    What is it with the Kentucky Derby and its traditional foods sounding so unappetizing?

    Although the name "burgoo" and the general appearance may not have you reaching for the spoon right away, you're going to be glad you eventually did.

    It's a thick, spicy stew served up with some mashed potatoes. It doesn't seem like the most traditional summer dish, but somehow it just works. Trust me.

No. 4: Mint Julep Glasses

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    You can drink your mint julep out of whatever you like, a plastic cup, Yahtzee shaker or whatever. But the tradition at the Derby doesn't stop at the drink. You need to get it from the special julep glasses.

    Tall and skinny, filled with crushed ice, with the mint positioned perfectly, this is the best way to enjoy a mint julep.

    And it's not just functional either, it's also cool looking. Each glass has the name of every winner of the Kentucky Derby and you get to take it home with you afterward. I have a couple already packed in my bag for when I get home.

No. 3: My Old Kentucky Home

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    This one has special meaning for me since I have lived in Kentucky, am a huge UK fan and this is the song we sang at the end of each game.

    Every year at the Derby, as the horses are taking the track, the Louisville band gathers to play "My Old Kentucky Home," as the crowd sings along.

    Even if you have never heard the song before, it will still give you goosebumps to hear tens of thousands of people singing along to it and swaying with one another.

    And my old Kentucky home goodnight, indeed.

No. 2: Mint Juleps

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    Part mint, part sugar, part bourbon, all deliciousness.

    Kentuckians love their mint juleps and they'll happily tell you what makes a good one. It's the kind of drink that both men and women enjoy equally, which makes it even more special. That doesn't happen a lot.

    I'm not a big "minty drink" guy, so I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked the juleps. I even liked this particular julep. He told great jokes.

No. 1: Derby Hats

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    Yep, everybody's favorite tradition.

    After the royal wedding last week, I wasn't sure how I was going to handle more fancy hats, but man are these fun. They're big, they extrude everything from feathers to flowers to shrubbery, but they're nothing if not entertaining.

    And honestly, it's not the hats themselves that are a sight most of the time—it's the sheer number of them. Hats as far as the eye can see. And most of the time, with all those hats around, you probably can't see that far anyway.

Thanks to Ram Trucks

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    Lastly, a big thanks to Ram trucks for the opportunity to experience these traditions personally. Going to the Kentucky Derby was bucket-list material, so it made writing this list more enjoyable than I could have imagined.

    For more info on the official truck of the Kentucky Derby, check out their Facebook page or follow them on Twitter.