Most Iconic Traditions of the Kentucky Derby

In the 145 years that the Kentucky Derby has been around, the race has never been canceled and it has only been postponed twice. That’s a track record that’s hard to beat! No matter what the world throws at us, you can bet there will be a Kentucky Derby. And with the derby comes hats, whiskey and even cake.

Here are a few of our favorite, fun and unique traditions of the Kentucky Derby.

Churchill Downs
Photo credit: @tmeredith60

Sipping a Mint Julep

Minty, refreshing and boozy, the mint julep is a classic summer drink in Kentucky. It’s been the official cocktail of the Kentucky Derby for almost a century. Traditionally made with bourbon, mint, sugar and water (although today you’ll usually find it made with crushed ice), it’s served in those classy pewter cups. The concoction was originally used as medicine and was especially popular in the American South.

Churchill Downs serves over 100,000 mint juleps during the two days of the Kentucky Derby races. For especially fancy race-goers, Woodford Reserve usually creates a $1,000 mint julep served in a limited-edition collectible cup plated in silver or gold-plated silver.

Fun fact: Kentucky provides about 95% of the world’s bourbon supply. We’ll raise our glass to that!

Donning a Fancy Kentucky Derby Hat

Kentucky Derby hats.
Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Photo credit: @samdangremond.

There aren’t many (or any) occasions that call for a fancy hat, but the Kentucky Derby is one of them. From the outlandish to fashion-forward, the humble hat takes center stage for Kentucky Derby outfits. The tradition goes back to the first year of the race, when women would dress in their Sunday best for large events. Fancy hats signaled higher social status and income. The tradition stuck and today is a staple of the races.

When picking out a hat, it’s suggested to go big and make it the statement piece of the outfit. Many hats include a rose theme, a nod to the race being the “run for the roses.”

Snacking on Derby Day Treats

The Kentucky Derby is known as the “fastest two minutes in sports,” but the festivities for the derby start the week before. And part of those festivities is gorging on good food. You may see cakes decorated to look like the famous fancy hats worn on derby day, roses and all. Bourbon cakes are also a popular choice. And then there’s the infamous “the pie formerly known as derby.” Made with nuts, chocolate and bourbon the recipe’s name has been at the center of well-known litigation in Kentucky. But despite the fight over the use of the name, this pie is a Derby Day staple.

There really aren’t any rules for Kentucky Derby cakes and treats, but they’re most commonly found at watch parties next to Benedictine sandwiches, country ham and Mint Juleps.

Taking a Photo with the Twin Spires

Churchill Downs might be the most famous racetrack in the U.S. And one of the most iconic sights at Churchill Downs are the towering twin spires. The large spires weren’t part of the original design of the grandstand. The architect working on the design, Joseph Dominic Baldez, added them to give the grandstand a more striking appearance.

And we’re glad Joseph came up with the idea. The spires’ iconic shape is a must-have for any race-day selfies.