2021 Kentucky Derby leans toward normalcy

The iconic horse race returns to the tracks after being postponed in 2020


Jake Stuart, Assistant Sports Editor

May 1 marks the 147th annual Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Ky. For those unfamiliar with the race, it is a distance of 1.25 miles, or 10 furlongs, and is run on the dirt racetrack at Churchill Downs. Twenty of the most prestigious horses, each three years of age, will attempt to take the two million dollar winning purse and be crowned champion.

To qualify for the Kentucky Derby, each horse overcame a series of 35 races that took place on top tracks around the world. These horses, which earned points for placing in the top four of each event, were then granted a spot in Kentucky. The Kentucky Derby is the first race of the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing and is followed by the Belmont Stakes and Preakness Stakes races.

What some call “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” the Kentucky Derby typically draws a crowd of 155,000 people. Fans were not allowed at the 2020 Derby in September amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, but Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear announced that a limited number of fans can watch the event unfold this year.

In a dramatic 2020 finish, heavy favorite Tiz the Law was denied a shot at the Triple Crown by Authentic, jockeyed by John Velazquez. Hall-of-Fame trainer Bob Baffert picked up his sixth win, tied for the most all-time by a trainer.

Essential Quality, trained by Brad Cox and jockeyed by Luis Saez, is the top-ranked horse going into this year’s race. The talented three-year-old has a perfect win record, which includes a victory at the prestigious Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keenland in 2020. He will square off in the 14th post, and appears to be battle-tested, having raced at three different tracks, each with different paces and conditions.

Hot Rod Charlie — son of 2014 Preakness winner Oxbow — figures to be another contender as well. The dark bay colt out of Indian, Miss. won the Louisiana Derby and came in second to Essential Quality in the Breeders Cup at Keeneland despite 94:1 odds.

Known Agenda, ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr. and trained by two-time Derby-winner Todd Pletcher, appears to be peaking at the right time following a victory at the Florida Derby and will also be a threat to win. Medina Spirit, ridden by John Velazquez and this year’s Baffert colt, enters the Derby never finishing worse than second in five prior starts. As far as longshots go, watch out for Super Stock. Hall-of-Fame trainer Steve Asmussen works with the colt, and  Ricardo Santana, Jr. will be taking the reins. The underdog has already proven himself, placing first at the Arkansas Derby, with odds of 40:1.  Amidst a talented 2021 field with no clear-cut favorite, this Derby shapes up to be another close finish.

The Kentucky Derby features a long list of traditions and is the longest continuously held sporting event in America.

The garland of roses is placed over the winning horse, ever since the first pink and white rose garland was given out in 1896. In 1904, the red rose became the official flower of the Kentucky Derby and master designers undertook a 10-to-12-hour construction process the day before. The garland features more than 400 roses and is 122 inches long, 22 inches wide and weighs upwards of 40 pounds.

As the horses make their way to the starting gate, the University of Louisville Marching Band plays “My Old Kentucky Home” and the crowd sings along. The Stephen Foster ballad was believed to have originated in 1921 and has been a Derby staple since.

The mint julep has served as the traditional beverage of the Kentucky Derby for nearly a century, and the iconic cocktail features Old Forester Mint Julep, simple syrup and mint leaves.

“Each year, almost 120,000 Mint Juleps are served over the two-day period of the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby weekend at Churchill Downs Racetrack” (according to Kentuckyderby.com). For perspective, over 10,000 bottles of Mint Julep — along with 1,000 pounds of freshly harvested mint and 60,000 pounds of ice — are required to make all the beverages.

The Kentucky Derby cannot be truly enjoyed without the fashion, or more specifically, the extravagant hats. Since the Derby’s inception, attendees (including many celebrities) along with fans at home have dressed elegantly for the event. Col. Meriweather Lewis Clark, Jr. made sure that the event became an opportunity for the high class to show off the latest in spring fashion. Even today, spectacular hats and outfits are donned by all attendees.

The stage is set for the 2021 Kentucky Derby, so be sure to take your seat by 6:45 — the post time of the race is 6:57, and it won’t last long!