Kentucky Derby julep tumblers are a cool collectible
On May 7, the silk-stocking set at the Kentucky Derby will survey the sleek thoroughbreds from the newly opened fifth-floor Finish Line Suites towering atop Churchill Downs' grandstand. The annual fee for the 15 supersuites, which each accommodate 40 ticket holders, ranges from $160,000 to $225,000, depending on amenities and location.
But whether you're a big spender or a $40 fan standing in the infield, the must-have souvenir is the same--a lowly mint julep glass. On Derby Day, racegoers will pay $8 apiece for over 80,000 official 2005 12.5-ounce Kentucky Derby mint julep glasses, each brimming with bourbon, mixed with mint-flavored sugar syrup and crushed ice. The empty glasses go for as low as $3 at retailer A Taste of Kentucky (atasteofkentucky.com). They're a bit kitschy, with horses, the Downs' spires, and roses, but that's part of the appeal.
"People get the bug," says Cindy Pierson Dulay. She should know. Dulay, who runs an online Derby glass price guide (www.abouthorseraces.com/equillector), owns some 90 Derby glasses--a collection she values at $4,000 to $5,000.
The tradition began in 1938, when the water glasses at Derby restaurants were decorated with the twin-spired clubhouse, a horse, and roses. People took the glasses home as souvenirs. So the track began making an official glass, designing a new logo each year.
Mass glass. Until 1974, only Churchill Downs sold Derby glasses. The limited supply created the perfect collectible. But in 1974, to honor the 100th Derby, retail outlets began selling the glasses as well. This year, over 640,000 julep glasses will be produced, up 50 percent from 1995.
The post-'70s batch usually sell for under $10 (unless there's a misprint in the standard list of Derby winners or a limited edition). A serious collector should aim for older glasses, suggests Tom Sporney, a longtime collector from Glen Burnie, Md. "The rarer ones from the 1940s, '50s, and '60s are increasing in value rapidly." A dated glass from 1940 might bring $16,750, according to the Kentucky Derby Glasses Price Guide, 2004-2005 Edition. During World War II, when glass was rationed, Bakelite, a brightly colored plastic, was used. These tumblers can sell for upwards of $2,500.
Less earnest collectors can buy a $179 starter set of 24 (1981-2004) at derbyglass.com. Now about that bet.
This story appears in the May 9, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.