If you’ve been on the Internet lately, chances are you’ve come across images of various celebrities and attractive women posing at the Kentucky Derby while wearing boldly colored dresses and even bolder hats. And sure, we all know the Kentucky Derby is some major horse race event that people want to be seen at – but do we know why? And where did those big hats come from?
First off, the races are located in Kentucky – hence the name. The state of Kentucky has a rich horse-racing history that dates all the way back to 1789, when the first race took place in Lexington. It wasn’t until a century later that the Churchill Downs Racetrack opened in 1875, kicking off the tradition as the home of the Kentucky Derby. Back in 1787, there was an area near Lexington’s Race Street that was known as The Commons, and it was a popular site for horse racing. However, there were numerous complaints from residents who were concerned about safety, which ultimately led to the formal development of a race meet. The men who organized the meet also formed the first jockey club, which was named the Kentucky Jockey Club in 1809.
Fast forward a century to a young man by the name of Col. M. Lewis Clark, who came up with the idea of creating a Louisville Jockey Club for conducting race meets. He developed the racetrack in order to showcase the Kentucky breeding industry, and the track eventually became known as Churchill Downs. The track formally opened on May 17, 1875 with four scheduled races – the Kentucky Derby being one of them, and it has been held each year since then, remaining the longest, continuously-held sporting event in the United States.
As the years passed, the Kentucky Derby continued to grow in popularity, expanding its reach to the rest of the world through national telecasts (the first aired in 1952), along with other physical changes and developments, including the installation of more seating boxes, barns, stables and so forth. However, the race track hit some financial difficulty in the early 1890s due to the fact that it was expensive to maintain and upkeep year-round, particularly when they only held a few select events during the year.
After being sold to a group of investors in 1894, a successful businessman named Matt Winn came along as just the thing the Churchill Downs needed, becoming the Vice-President and put all of his efforts into redeveloping the image of the Kentucky Derby. He also understood the power of celebrity and began to recruit famous people from movies, music, politics and so forth, which soon changed how people viewed the race and sport.
Nowadays, the Kentucky has turned into a red-carpet type of event filled with style and trends, which includes a roster of celebrities – everyone from NFL player Tom Brady and Hills alum Lauren Conrad to former boy band member Nick Lachey and reality television maven Kim Kardashian. Most of the celebrities who attend the event come as guests of prominent ticket holders, although some celebrities are race horse owners as well. There have been several occasions when royalty and former presidents have attended as well, including Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II, George W. Bush and Richard Nixon.
The Kentucky Derby also has its own set of traditions that it has become known for. The rose garland has been adopted as the Kentucky Derby’s official flower, and first came to the public eye back in 1896 when winner Ben Brush was given an arrangement of pink and white roses. They are also presented to the ladies that attend the fashionable Derby parties. The mint julep drink has become the official beverage of the race track and the Kentucky Derby and has been served for over a century. Also, the Kentucky Derby post-parade includes the University of Louisville marching band that performs “My Old Kentucky Home” as the horses are led onto the track.
And as for the big hats? This long-established tradition was started by the women and is believed to bring good luck for picking the best horse, although it originally came about as a means of preventing the hot sun from scorching one’s skin during those long days at the races(and to prevent a tan, since darker skin implied you actually had to work for a living). Back in the day women used to carry parasols around with them and the wide-brimmed hat helped alleviate that issue, freeing up one’s hands to hold a drink or applaud.
Men eventually caught on to this trend as well, and you’ll definitely see many a gentleman rocking the large hat at the races. Many women tend to opt for wide-brimmed Southern Belle-inspired Kentucky Derby hats, which usually consist of feathers, bows, ribbons and flowers. The official motto of the Kentucky Derby hat is: the bigger and crazier, the better! (Okay, not actually official.) Men, on the other hand, tend to select hats in solid colors that are inspired by 1920s style. And perhaps the most popular reason for the hats is to provide a style competition for attendees, who aspire to be photographed for the various fashion blogs and sites that profile celebrities and all of the other glamorous people who attend the Kentucky Derby.