Kentucky Derby Museum: A Run for the Roses

“And it’s run for the roses

As fast as you can

Your fate is delivered

Your moment’s at hand

It’s the chance of a lifetime

In a lifetime of chance

And it’s high time you joined

In the dance

It’s high time you joined

In the dance.”

              -“Run for the Roses,” written & performed by Dan Fogelberg

For any horseracing fan, a visit to Churchill Downs is a must. On the first Saturday in May for the past 147 years, three-year-old thoroughbreds have taken to the legendary track for the Kentucky Derby and tried to capture horseracing’s first of the Triple Crown races (The Preakness in Maryland and The Belmont in New York follow). At the time of my visit, a horse named Justify will win not just the Derby but all three, earning himself a place in a very exclusive club.

General admission includes a 30-minute walking tour and access to all the museum features. I choose to tack on the Barn and Backside Van Tour for an additional fee.

Patrons get their blood pumping for the excitement of the Kentucky Derby right from the start by viewing “The Greatest Race,” an 18-minute film played on a 360-degree, 4K high-resolution theater. The museum has exhibits on every aspect of the Derby – artifacts from past horses and jockeys; a closer look at the fancy hats and attire worn by attendees; the path from foal to entrant; and much more. There’s an also an opportunity to ride a mechanical horse in a simulation game, and the ability to view any of the past races on a screen.

All the Triple Crown winners – from Sir Barton in 1919 to Justify almost exactly 100 years later – receive royal treatment with more in-depth profiles. Prominent trainers and owners, horses who fell just short of the Triple Crown at the Belmont, and other notable figures are all given a spot in the limelight. And the museum features a touching tribute to Winning Colors (1988) and the two fillies before her, Genuine Risk (1980) and Regret (1915), to wear the roses. 

On the tours we learn all sorts of fascinating facts: the track is 75% sand, 23% silt, and 2% clay; the Derby is preceded by a two-week festival all over the city; locals call the Thursday before the Derby “Thurby”; the board in the center of the track is the size of three NBA courts and some 100-120 thousand spectators fill the infield alone; the number 10 slot is the winningest position, while number 17 is scarily unlucky (no horse starting from that slot has ever won); and Donerail is the biggest long-shot victory in Derby history, having won in 1913 with 91:1 odds (meaning for a $2 bet, you walk away with $182 – adjusted for inflation, that’s $4,682 today).

Churchill Downs contains 47 racing stables and has a holding cell for drunks. From March through November, 700 workers live full-time in about 250 dorms. There’s 1,400 total stalls, in which horses spend up to 22 hours a day. It has a chapel, too, though services are held on Monday since Sunday is a race day. One building is marked “Press Center,” but that is only the case one day a year. The other 364 days, it is simply a rec hall.

The “Sport of Kings” does not attract the patronage and attention of the major sports, but Derby Weekend is truly an event that brings premium customers and prices. At the time of my tour, I’m informed that a lot of hotels’ prices are 10 times on Derby weekend versus the cost for most of the year, and most hotels require four-night stay minimum.

Then there’s the mint julep. This bourbon-based cocktail became associated with Derby in the 1930s, and you can have one in a collectible glass. For a Derby glass, it will cost you $14. To have it in a silver cup, you need to cough up $1,000. For twice that amount, you can have it in a gold cup.

In 1875, about 10,000 people attended the Derby; when Justify ran, an audience of more than 157,000 witnessed the event. It has become as much of a cultural event as it has merely a sporting event.

The tours are filled with fun facts, but it is more memorable to be surrounded by something that carries such an aura and a history. To walk the same path the horses do from the paddock to the track is a little bit of a surreal experience: to imagine the electricity of the crowd as the jockeys’ dreams of running in the Derby come to fruition, the anticipation building with each step of a hoof closer to the oval where legends have been born.

When I have seen everything, I sit down at the Derby Café. The Pulled Southern Bar-B-Que is savory and the service impeccable. A visit to the Gift Shop caps my fantastic time at the Kentucky Derby Museum. For horseracing fans, it’s a do-this-before-you-die pilgrimage. For everyone else, it’s an insightful look into a sport that has weathered wars, increasingly high demands for our attention, and even the coronavirus. The museum shows just how much a fixture the Kentucky Derby is in American sports, and what it means to Kentucky.

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