Mel’s Musings: Run for the Roses

Some of the best things at the Kentucky Derby are absolutely free. Intangibles such as the aura of excitement and exhilaration of an early morning along the Ohio River; the sight of the spires of Churchill Downs; the brightly colored racing silks; and the sound of the bugles calling the horses to run. However, depending on seat location, a ticket to see the 2008 Run for the Roses will cost anywhere from $430 to $4,545.

Kentucky has been a center of horse breeding since the late 18th century. From the time the region was settled, the fields of the Bluegrass region were noted for producing superior race horses. In 1872 Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, traveled to England. He visited the Epsom Derby, a famous race that had been run annually since 1780. From there, Clark went to Paris, France, where in 1863 a group of racing enthusiasts had formed the French Jockey Club and organized the “Grand Prix id Paris,” at the time, the greatest race in France.

Returning home to Kentucky, Clark organized the Louisville Jockey Club for the purpose of raising money to build a quality racing facility just outside the city. This track would become known as Churchill Downs, named for Clark’s relatives, John and Henry Churchill who had provided the land for the racetrack. The track was officially incorporated as Churchill Downs in 1937.

The Derby, nicknamed the Run for the Roses because the winner is draped with a lush blanket of roses, is a race for 3-year-old thoroughbreds and is held annually on the first Saturday in May. The race caps two weeks of Kentucky Derby festivities and celebration.

In addition to the race itself, a number of traditions play a large role in the Derby atmosphere. The traditional beverage of the race is the mint julep, an iced drink consisting of bourbon, mint and sugar syrup. Most Churchill Downs patrons sip their historic drink from a souvenir glass, printed with the names of previous race winners. These glasses and other memorabilia are highly collectible, especially from years when famous horses such as Whirlaway (1942), Northern Dancer (1964) Secretariat (1973 and Barbaro (2006) won the race.

Even food recipes relative to the Kentucky Derby are of interest to epicures with a flair for the traditional. One traditional dish often served on Derby day is burgoo, a thick stew of beef, chicken, pork and vegetables. Another prime example is thoroughbred pie. One taste of this Southern delight evokes visions of the colonel relaxing on the veranda, mint julep in hand, with banjos strumming in the background.

For more traditional Kentucky Derby recipes and information, visit