And they’re off! The horseracing season gallops into full stride every first Saturday in May at the Kentucky Derby as the world’s best 3-year-old thoroughbreds begin competing for the coveted Triple Crown.
To win the elusive title, a feat achieved just 13 times over the course of more than a century of racing history, the equine stars need to align for one super horse to triumph at the Derby as well as the Preakness and Belmont stakes, which all occur roughly within a month.
Justify became the 13th Triple Crown winner in history in 2018 after winning the Belmont Stakes in June. And before that, American Pharoah broke a 37-year drought in 2015 that extended back to a heyday period in the 1970s when arguably the greatest thoroughbred ever, Secretariat, was among a trio of horses to nab the Triple Crown. Secretariat ran each leg of the Triple Crown in record-breaking times that still stand today.
Even if you’re not a horseracing fan champing at the bit to wager a bet, odds are the “sport of kings” will capture your attention if only in three digestible doses. The pomp and pageantry can’t be ignored. It’s contagious. And the customs surrounding these races, which pre-date all other bucket-list sporting events, add the allure of being part of an enduring tradition. Plus, they’re just plain fun, prompting folks to down signature cocktails and don crazy hats!
The towns of the Triple Crown promise treasures beyond the racetracks, too. No doubt, attending any of the Triple Crown races, seeing the flawless form of chiseled thoroughbreds break from the starting gate, hearing the crowd gasp in concert and feeling the cracking energy of that moment, amounts to an inspiring affair. Still, whether you plan to witness the spectacle in person one day or simply watch it on TV, below are a few tidbits for burgeoning race buffs.
Contested at Churchill Downs in Louisville, the Kentucky Derby—also known as “The Run for the Roses” in light of the flower blanket draped over the winner and “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” in deference to the approximate time the race takes—ranks as the oldest continuously held sporting event in America.
Weathering both World Wars, the Great Depression and even legislative bans on betting, nothing has sidelined this race since its inception in 1875. The 144th running unfolds in front of the iconic, twin-spired grandstand on a 1.25-mile dirt track. As the first jewel of the Triple Crown, it always attracts the largest field (about 20 horses) as well as the biggest crowd.
With swanky haunts for spectators, such as “Millionaires Row,” the Derby also delivers a decidedly old-school, upscale feel. Even the Queen of England has attended. Wide-brimmed hats, seersucker suits and frosty Mint Juleps are the accoutrements du jour. For a quintessential bite, burgoo (spicy mixed-meat stew) and bourbon-soaked candied pecans stand out.
During the post parade, when the field of horses ceremoniously travels from the paddock to the starting gate, the crowd sings “My Old Kentucky Home,” and there will be tears. Really, it’s a celebration of lifestyle as much as anything else.
Bonus Trivia: The founder of Churchill Downs was the grandson of Missouri Governor General William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Around Town: Visit the super-interactive Kentucky Derby Museum, sample smooth Kentucky whiskey on the Urban Bourbon Trail, shadow-box at Muhammad Ali Center, grab a souvenir bat at the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, wander America’s largest Victorian neighborhood, zip-line at the world’s only underground course and cruise the Ohio River aboard a historic steamboat. The city’s ever-growing Derby Festival also boasts an epic air show and fireworks display.
The second jewel of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, sometimes suffers from middle-child syndrome. Poet and Baltimore resident, Ogden Nash, crafted the best response to such thinking, stating: “The Derby is a race of aristocratic sleekness, for horses of birth to prove their worth to run in the Preakness.” Regular Baltimoreans simply say: “If it doesn’t happen here, it doesn’t happen.”
Dubbed “The Run for the Blackeyed Susans” (Maryland’s state flower), the Preakness is the shortest race at 1 and 3/16 miles. It debuted in 1873, and this year’s 143rd running takes place as always two weeks after the Derby. Traditions include singing “Maryland, My Maryland” during the post parade and immediately re-painting a historic horse-and-jockey weathervane to reflect the silks worn by the winning duo. Plus, winners receive the Tiffany-crafted Woodlawn Vase, touted as the most expensive trophy in sports.
While you’ll find fancy hats and a refined signature cocktail, aptly named the Blackeyed Susan and crafted from vodka, pineapple, orange and lime, a wilder party atmosphere prevails. It comes courtesy of InfieldFest, which delivers added entertainment (think “mug club” for unlimited beer and a “megastage” with musical performances from top artists) that draws crowds to the middle of the racetrack. Preakness also promises yummy, yet casual iconic treats like crab pretzels.
Bonus Trivia: Pimlico hosted the famous match race that saw Seabiscuit beat War Admiral in 1938. Named after a colt that hailed from Preakness Stables in Wayne, NJ, the Preakness also has a northeast connection.
Around Town: Spy jellies, steel-eyed sharks and a 500-pound sea turtle at the National Aquarium and then walk the decks of the 1854 USS Constellation, the last sloop-of-war. Visit retro-classic Camden Yards and tour the nearby Babe Ruth Birthplace & Museum. Survey the world’s largest collection of locomotives at the B&O Railroad Museum, where American railroading began. And get your patriotic heart pounding at the star-shaped Fort McHenry, site of the battle that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., just outside New York City’s borough of Queens, lives up to its “Test of the Champion” moniker with a grueling 1.5-mile track, the longest Triple Crown race. Most thoroughbreds don’t train for that distance, and Triple Crown contenders usually need to fend off fresh horses that haven’t endured the Derby and the Preakness. Established in 1867, Belmont also is the oldest race. This year marks its 150th edition.
Some traditions have shifted. While post parades were first introduced to America at the 14th Belmont Stakes, “Sidewalks of New York” was replaced as the longtime signature song by “New York, New York” in 1997. Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” got a turn as well, before it reverted back to “New York, New York.” The obligatory cocktail evolved, too, with the Belmont Jewel (bourbon, lemonade and pomegranate juice) prevailing.
A landmark, 200-year-old White Pine adorns Belmont’s paddock, and winning horses receive blankets crafted from white carnations. An onsite statue of Secretariat gets draped as well. Plus, there’s a Secretariat pole just inside the racetrack rail that extents 31½ lengths, commemorating his remarkable margin of victory. Fans don’t congregate on the infield, where a green meadow and ponds foster a nostalgic scene. Instead, Belmont boasts a family-friendly “backyard” behind a cavernous grandstand.
Bonus Trivia: In the 1993 Belmont Stakes, jockey Julie Krone became the first woman to win a Triple Crown race. Want more girl power? A filly won the inaugural stakes, one of only three fillies to capture the Belmont Trophy.
Around Town: Learn about firefighters and aviators along Garden City’s museum row. Golf like a pro at on the world-renowned black course at the Bethpage State Park, the only public course on the PGA tour. Roam Theodore Roosevelt’s summer white house. Walk under the nostalgic Pepsi-Cola sign at Gantry Plaza State Park and picnic amid art at Socrates Sculpture Park, both adorn Long Island City’s waterfront just across the East River from Manhattan and all its treasures.
Hope that helps down the stretch!