What Is The Kentucky Derby?

20 horses compete in the Kentucky Derby.
20 horses compete in the Kentucky Derby.
  • The Kentucky Derby is known as The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.
  • A prize of $2 million is awarded to the winner.
  • The Derby is the first of three races in the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing.

The Kentucky Derby is one of the world's top horse races. It is also America's longest continually held sports competition. Each year on the first Saturday in May, about 155,000 spectators gather at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky to watch the Derby. 

The famous race is the first of three in what is known as the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing. The Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, Maryland, is the second race, followed by The Belmont Stakes in Elmont, New York. Should the same horse win all three competitions, it is deemed the winner of the Triple Crown and made an instant sports legend.

The Race

There are 20 horses competing in the Kentucky Derby, making it one of the larger horse races; other races have just an average of eight horses. There are 35 qualifying races leading up to the Derby. The 20 horses that earn the most points in those races are granted a spot at the starting line at the Derby.

The Kentucky Derby is a Grade 1 stakes race, and only three-year-old thoroughbreds are permitted to compete. The horses gallop around a dirt track that is one-and-a-quarter miles long. The race lasts just about two minutes, earning it the nickname "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports." The winning horse and jockey are awarded two million dollars, making this a very lucrative race.

Recent Kentucky Derby Winners

Here is a list of the Kentucky Derby winners from the last decade. It was an exciting time for horse racing, as two of the 10 horses, Justify (2018) and American Pharoah (2015) went on to win the Triple Crown.

2019 Country House

2018 Justify*

2017 Always Dreaming

2016 Nyquist

2015 American Pharoah*

2014 California Chrome

2013 Orb

2012 I'll Have Another

2011 Animal Kingdom

2010 Super Saver 

*Triple Crown Winner


Often considered the greatest racehorse in the history of the sport, Secretariat won the Derby in 1973 and then went on to win the Triple Crown. Although others have gone on to win the Triple count crown since then, Secretariat won the Races by such a large margin that he will always have a place in sports history.

Traditions of the Derby

The horses are not the only focus of the Kentucky Derby. There are several traditions observed that are nearly as exciting as the action on the track. Below are a few traditions.

The Rose Garland

The Kentucky Derby is also known as “The Run for the Roses.” The winner of the race is draped with an intricate garland of more than 400 red roses sewn onto green satin. The satin backing features the number of the Derby’s renewal that year, along with the Kentucky Commonwealth seal and an image of the Twin Spires, a famous landmark at Churchill Downs. The garlands also feature the so-called “crown” of roses with green fern and ribbon. A single rose at the center of the garland rises above the rest, a symbol of the hard work and diligence needed to win the race.

Mint Juleps

For almost a century, the mint julep has been the beverage of choice at the Kentucky Derby. Well over a hundred thousand cocktails are served during the weekend events which include the Derby and the Kentucky Oaks, a fillies-only race held the day before.

Women's Hats

Nothing can steal attention from the horses at the Derby except the hats. In keeping with Southern tradition, female spectators wear beautiful hats, fascinators, and other millinery to the race. Some of the hats are so extravagant that they make some people wonder whether the real competition is on the track or in the stands.

Watching the Derby 

Unless you are lucky enough to score a ticket to the Kentucky Derby itself, most sports enthusiasts watch the event unfold on television. It is not uncommon for people to host viewing parties, complete with mint juleps and hats. Whether you are betting on the race or are just watching for fun, the Kentucky Derby is a much-loved annual tradition.


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