The Kentucky Derby may be the most widely anticipated and discussed two-minute sports event of the year. For folks outside the 30-mile radius of Louisville, Kentucky, it is just a horse race. For folks inside that radius, “derby” is a culture, one of big hats, bow ties, and bourbon.

As an aside, let me say one of the biggest clues that reveal your “tourist” status is how you pronounce Louisville.  For the record, it’s “LOU-a-vul.” Not Looeyville. Not Looisville.

The Kentucky Derby isn’t just a horse race, it’s the biggest party of the year and a huge money maker for the tourism industry. It is the first of three races that make up the Triple Crown.

This past Saturday, the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby was held at Churchill Downs, and the winner was the heavily favored Nyquist. This was the culmination of several weeks of celebration dedicated to this two minutes of racing.

LOUISVILLE, KY - MAY 07: Nyquist #13, ridden by Mario Gutierrez, wins the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 07, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 614259857 ORIG FILE ID: 528999532


The variety of activities and events that are included in the official Kentucky Derby Festival calendar is vast. There are also many unofficial events that tag on to the festivities and make this three weeks in spring over the top.

I have lived in Louisville for nine years and I still can’t quite understand the relationship between horse racing, hot air balloon races, steamboat races, fireworks, and bourbon. In between those key events, there are also mattress races where employees have decorated beds like floats and push them down Main Street, the wine derby where local restaurant servers go through an obstacle course with a loaded tray of wine, and let’s not forget the Ken-Ducky Derby, a fundraising event where 20,000 yellow rubber ducks are launched into the Ohio River for a chance for someone to win a brand new car.



Let’s get back to the horses. Everyone has heard of the Kentucky Derby, but because it is a Grade 1 race and the pinnacle of horse racing in the United States, most horses can’t get within a furlong of the Kentucky Derby.

There are races for very talented horses who are not qualified to run in the Derby. The breakdown starts at the top of the racing tree – with ‘stakes races.’ Then we drop down the race-type hierarchy to the bottom rung of American horse racing, the ‘maiden claiming’ race. Horses rise in class or maybe drop in class frequently. Tried and true horse wagerers not only know this, they count on it when wagering. Here is a brief breakdown on the classification:

  • Stakes races are the highest grade of United States horse races, but even these are broken down into sub-divisions.
  • Below Grade 3 Stakes races are allowance races, and in similar vein to stakes races, allowance races are broken down by class.
  • On the next rung down the ladder are claiming races. Around 50% of horse races in America are claiming races. In a claiming race a price is put on the head of a horse. At the top end of a claiming race the price put on the head of the horse may be as much as $50,000.

In the United States the claim goes in before the race is run, which makes it more of a gamble. You may claim the favorite for the race beforehand, only to see the horse trail in last. You just bought yourself a horse.



So now maybe you think you are ready to wager. Betting on horse racing is just as historic as the sport of horse racing itself. From ancient civilizations across the world to the betting windows at Churchill Downs, the desire to bet on the horse that is fastest on a set course at a set distance has remained unchanged.

There are classifications for the different types of bets. First, the most common are the Win-Place-Show bets. Betting a horse to win is just as fun as it sounds – the horse must win the race in order for you to win the wager. Next, is a place wager. This is betting on a horse to finish in the top 2. You win the wager if your horse finishes first or second. Lastly, betting a horse to show means selecting a horse who you think will finish in the top 3. You win the wager if your horse finishes first, second, or third.

The next group of bets are called exotics because they are more involved, however they do have greater returns when successful.

  • You bet an exacta by selecting a minimum two horses to finish first and second. These horses must finish first and second, in that order, for you to win the wager. If this sounds too difficult, you can “box” your wager. A boxed wager will win if your horses finish 1st and 2nd, in any order, making it more likely for you to win.
  • A trifecta is a little more difficult as you will be selecting a minimum of three horses to finish first, second, and third. Again, you can box your wager and you will win if your horses finish 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, in any order.

People from all over the world travel to Louisville each year to take part in the Derby Festival and experience the legendary Run for the Roses on the first Saturday in May. Start preparing now to mark this event off your bucket list next year.

Melody K. Smith

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