More than just a horse race, the Kentucky Derby has grown into an American cultural event unlike any other since its inaugural running in 1875. Many of the traditions that will be flouted at Churchill Downs this weekend – and at Derby parties across the country – we owe to Matt Winn, who served as the face of the race from 1902 until his death in 1949. "The important, visible signs of the Derby and these romantic ideals of the old South were, if not created, at least promoted by Winn," says James C. Nicholson, author of "The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America's Premier Sporting Event." Here are how some of those Derby Day traditions got their start:
The Roses. The beautiful blanket of 564 roses placed on the winning horse traces its roots to a strain of roses introduced to America in 1870s. Churchill Downs founder Meriwether Lewis Clark used them for decorations at a post-Derby party and by the 1890s, they became a prop in the post-race presentations, first as bouquet, then as a garland for the winning horse. Bill Curom, who went on to be the president of Churchill Downs, coined the term "The Run for the Roses" in 1925 when he was one of Winn's favorite sportswriters.
"My Old Kentucky Home." Stephen Collins Foster wrote the anthem in the 1850s, stirred by Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin." But it was not until the 1920s that it took off in popularity, when a mansion was thought to be identified as the song's inspiration (though no evidence exists that Foster ever actually saw the house). Within a few years Winn replaced the National Anthem with "My Old Kentucky Home" to kick off the Derby, and today it is performed by the University of Louisville Marching Band.
Mint Juleps. The Kentucky whiskey and mint concoction was a popular drink at the Derby from its start. It became a staple, the legend goes, when a famous Polish actress, Helena Modjeska, ordered the drink at a pre-Derby breakfast at the track and loved it. Churchill Downs began serving it in its current souvenir glasses in the late 1930s, in part, because clubhouse patrons were stealing their regular glasses.
Gambling. A turn of the century campaign by progressive groups to abolish bookmakers at the races threatened the survival of not just the Kentucky Derby, but American horse racing as a whole. In one of his first and most important innovations, Winn embraced an alternate form of gambling, parimutuel betting, which removed the need for bookies all together (as payoffs were calculated by pooling all the bets together). The technology to do so had come from France decades earlier, but hadn't taken off in the states. So Winn had to scramble across the country to find the machines and introduce them at Churchill Downs.
The Big Hats. The ornate hats worn by women to the race is a relic of the past, a popular fashion at the Derby's start and now almost a costume for today's event. "It really goes back to England, and the Kentucky Derby was patterned after a race in England, the Epsom," says Ronnie Dreistadt, a curator of education at the Kentucky Derby Museum. Nevertheless, it was tradition used by race promoters like Winn to market the Kentucky Derby to women and make it a see-and-be-seen event.
The Celebrities. "Really the 1920s is when the celebrities started flocking to the race," says Dreisdt, and here too, Winn gets the credit, bringing in the likes of Ginger Rogers and Babe Ruth. From its early years and through today, a dichotomy exists between the race's spectators: the celebrities, millionaires and royalty in the clubhouse, and a more raucous party going on in the infield. "There's a long history of both types of people and experiences, and it seems like the presence of each adds to the experience of the other," says Nicholson. The infielders catch a glimpse of the rich and famous, and those in the clubhouse get a kick from the revelry going on in the infield.