May 17: The First Kentucky Derby

Kentucky DerbyWe’re deep in the middle of horse racing’s Triple Crown race season, and today we’re going back to May 17, 1875  the first running of the Kentucky Derby!

The origin of the Kentucky Derby can be found in England. In 1872, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., grandson of William Clark of Lewis & Clark fame, paid a visit to England and attended the Epsom Darby, a horse race that had been held annual since 1780. From England he traveled to Paris where he learned of the French Jockey Club, an organization of French horse racing enthusiasts who organized the Grand Prix de Paris. Upon returning home to Kentucky, Clark decided that his native land needed something similar to England and France’s prestigious races.

With a little help from his friends, Clark quickly established the Louisville Jockey Club and began raising funds to build a race track outside the city. The track was opened in 1875 and was soon named Churchill Downs, in honor of John and Henry Churchill, who provided the land the track sat on. So, on May 17  of that same year, 10,000 people watched as jockey Oliver Lewis rode Astrides to victory over 14 other three year old horses.

The official drink of the Kentucky Derby is the Mint Julep. The origins of the Julep aren’t particularly clear, although we do know that it originated somewhere in the American South during the 18th century. The Julep has been an important part of the Derby since 1938 when Churchill Downs began promoting the drink as the cocktail of choice for the Derby and the Kentucky Oaks. Tragically, due to contractual arrangements, official Kentucky Derby Mint Juleps are currently made with Early Times. While Early Times is a good enough whiskey, it is not a bourbon and a proper Mint Julep demands good quality bourbon, preferably from Kentucky.

Mint Julep

  • 2 ounces Bourbon
  • 4 mint leaves
  • 1 teaspoon powdered sugar
  • 2 teaspoons water

Muddle the mint, sugar and water together in the bottom of a highball glass. Fill the glass with ice and add the bourbon. Stir until the glass is frosted. Garnish with a sprig of mint.

Tomorrow: We sign our name in concrete.

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