7 Classic Kentucky Derby Traditions

What makes the derby the Derby — and how to make these traditions your own

Churchill Downs

While some might dismiss the Kentucky Derby as just another horse race, the multi-day festivities in Louisville, K.Y., are a spectacle like no other. Modeled after the Epsom Derby in the U.K., the Kentucky Derby was established in 1875 in an effort to showcase Kentucky’s horse-breeding legacy. Filled with years of tradition, the race today is a party- and celebrity-filled affair where the latest and greatest looks in fashion are on display and revelers of all ages meet for a day of (sometimes frisky) fun.

This year’s race at Churchill Downs marks the 137th Running of the Roses. And as in years past, the competition at horse racing’s premier event isn’t limited to the horses (and their owners), but amongst the well-dressed, too. As guests spend nearly as much money on their attire as they do at the betting window, it’s no surprise that one of the spectacles of the day is the annual “hat parade,” referring to the sea of ladies showing off their wide-brimmed hats, some made just for the occasion.  

While one is sure to recognize many faces of the rich and famous in the “Millionaire’s Row” box seats, the party that takes place in the “third turn” area of the infield is just the opposite. Likened to Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, nearly 80,000 (potentially inebriated) revelers come to the interior section of the racetrack to enjoy a tailgate like no other.

You won’t go hungry while visiting the Derby, with a variety of hospitality offerings and new food festivals in the days leading up to the race. (Check out our guide to the event here.) But, to this day, the event’s main (edible) attraction remains the same: the mint julep. With the race mere days away, they better get started on harvesting the 1,000 pounds of mint and 6,000 pounds of ice needed to make the 120,000 juleps served to the thirsty crowd. 

Click here to see the 7 Kentucky Derby Traditions Slideshow.