The Kentucky Derby: A to Z

Updated: May 2, 2007, 7:39 PM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

Petra Nemcova
Horsephotos.comDerby Day fashion all comes together with model Petra Nemcova at the 2006 Kentucky Derby.
The Kentucky Derby is much more than horses, hats and mint juleps. It's an institution in American culture, dubbed 'The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports' for good reason. After all, where else do celebrities, heads of state and collegiate debauchery mingle at a single event? So what makes the Kentucky Derby so special? Let us count the ways, from A to Z.

Attendance for the Kentucky Derby has skyrocketed in the past decade, and the event's popularity is stronger than ever. But the 1974 mark of 163,628 spectators may never be broken -- since the infield area was reduced to 40 acres following the installation of the turf-racing course in 1988.

Bourbon is Kentucky's second-finest export next to the Thoroughbred, though you may find some who argue the order to be reversed. And, rest assured, it flows Derby Week -- 80,000 mint juleps will be served Derby Day.

Cleaning up the facility after 100,000 fans on Oaks Day and readying it for 150,000-plus patrons for the next morning's Derby Day onslaught is one of the most amazing things you'll ever see. High schoolers who are fund-raising throughout Louisville are put to work with leaf blowers harnessed to their backs, looking like a fleet of Ghostbusters.

D. Wayne Lukas has won the Derby four times, more than any trainer alive. And even in a year like this, when it appears he doesn't have a viable contender, he's so quotable that he'll still steal the media show on the backstretch every morning.

Every jockey in the race gathers for a 'team photo' of sorts before the running of the race. Afterwards, they go back to fist-fighting and stealing each other's upcoming mounts. But it is a cool, Kumbaya-kind-of-moment recorded in picture.

Favorites don't win the Derby often these days. Since 1979, only Smarty Jones and Fusiachi Pegasus have rewarded the backing of the masses with a winning move. But 50 times in 132 years, the public choice has won the Derby.

Glasses with the Derby logo have been a traditional souvenir since 1938. While their lifespan housing a mint julep lasts only minutes, some of these time-honored glasses have become rather valuable on the collectibles market. The 1940 beauty currently is on Ebay at a Buy It Now! price of $13,500. Think I'll just have another julep.

Horses. It's all about the horses. A total of 37,572 newly born Thoroughbreds were registered in 2004. Three years later, only one will be remembered for all-time.

Infield revelry makes the Derby experience part-Animal House and part-Woodstock for many attendees. Sneaking in bottles of booze in hollowed out loaves of French bread once was considered creative. That's sooooo '70s now.

Jeremy Plonk's favorite Louisville restaurant -- The Bristol. You can thank me after your meal. For a less expensive, quick meal try Mark's Feed Store, where you won't know what's in a bowl burgoo, but you won't care -- it's that good.

Kentucky's third-largest city is Churchill Downs on Derby Day, trailing only behind Louisville (550,000-plus) and Lexington (268,000-plus). In fact, there will be more people at the Derby than in the state's next three largest cities -- Owensboro, Bowling Green and Covington -- combined.

Louisville bear-hugs the Derby like no other city in America embraces an event. Even churches get involved. I recall seeing a sign outside a church several years ago that read, 'Win the race of life. Worship with us.' That echoes even deeper after dropping a few hundred of the hard-earned.

My Old Kentucky Home bellows from the University of Louisville Marching Band as the horses parade onto the track before the big race. If you don't get goosebumps EVERY time, you're not human. No lie -- just got 'em here typing that line. Call me a wuss.

Next door to Churchill Downs is the Kentucky Derby Museum. Though it's closed Oaks and Derby Days for sensible, crowd-related reasons, do yourselves a favor and check it out earlier in the week. The 360-degree movie at the end of the tour - priceless.

Oaks Day, held immediately prior to the Derby, has become Louisville's Day at the Races. Locals flock to Oaks Day more so than Derby Day, when Louisvillians often avoid the tourists and host their own parties.

Purse money now totals $2 million for the Derby, which, more than any other race in America, rewards its winner. A Derby champ nabs almost 80 percent of the purse most years, whereas everyday race winners take home about 60 percent of the booty.

Queen Elizabeth II will be gracing this year's Derby, though there's absolutely no truth to the rumor that she'll be outside huckstering tipsheets and barking, 'Hear, ye! Hear, ye! Buy my sheet and hit the pick three.'

Roses make up the traditional blanket that adorns each year's Kentucky Derby winner, and they're woven together by local Kroger grocery store volunteers in a matter of civic pride.

Spires, Twins in fact, cascade up from the old grandstand and are now book-ended by luxury suites from a sprawling, impressive reconstruction effort. If you ever get the chance, watch the sunrise over the Spires when they're lit. It's one of the purest joys of Derby Week.

Todd Pletcher may saddle enough horses in this year's Derby to make up a championship Kentucky basketball team. That would put him one step ahead of Tubby Smith these days.

Usher has been a regular celebrity visitor to the Kentucky Derby. (Do you know how hard it is to start something with the letter U?) And for a bit of extra gossip ... celebrity watchers reported that Usher blew off Tara Reid's advances at the Derby two years ago. Now where are you gonna get info like that?

Video replays of all the top horses and races this season are archived at NTRA.com, the online home of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. Get yourself acquainted with this year's cast before making any final decisions.

Wagering on this year's Kentucky Derby racing action should exceed $160 million. That's a lot of souvenir tickets for Aunt Edna.

X-rated would be Tipper Gore's label on the infield scene. That's a little harsh by today's cultural standards. But if you think the Derby infield is a little salty, wait two weeks and brave the Preakness infield. Whoa, daddy.

Your best bet at making a mint on the Kentucky Derby is to play the superfecta. While it's not easy to pick the top four winners in order, the 2005 'super' paid $1,728,507 -- that's more than Giacomo's owners received for winning the race!

Zzz ... Rest up, folks. Gates open on Derby Day at 8 a.m. and the last race doesn't go off until somewhere around 7 p.m. Did anyone mention comfortable shoes?

Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine and its website HorsePlayerdaily.com.

In addition to being a longtime contributing writer to ESPN.com's Horse Racing section, Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine.

ALSO SEE