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Just How Big is the Kentucky Derby?

By Taylor Smith in Sports
| April 27, 2017 12:00 am PDT
How Big is the Kentucky Derby Feature Image

To say the Kentucky Derby is the crown jewel of American thoroughbred racing would be quite the monstrous understatement. It’s just one of three rungs of the Triple Crown, but the “run for the roses” is easily the sport’s most prestigious event. It’s clearly the event most horses, jockeys, trainers and owners want to win most of all.

With the 2017 running of the race just a couple of weeks away, it’s never too early to start preparing. What do you need to know about the Kentucky Derby?

Kentucky Derby Attendance

The 2016 running of the Derby fell just shy of setting a new record for attendance. 167,227 were at Churchill Downs to watch Nyquist take first place in the event, which was down from a record 170,513 that saw American Pharoah accomplish the same feat the year prior. The race is the longest-running race on the planet, and it’s taken place every year since it was founded in 1875.

The Kentucky Derby regularly attracts crowds in excess of 150,000 nowadays, and it’s only going to keep expanding. The Kentucky Oaks, which is a Grade 1 stakes race comprised of three-year-old fillies that takes place before the Derby, draws a number of attendees, as well. While not as large as the main event, the Oaks has seen attendance growing constantly over the years. That race now routinely draws more than 110,000 fans a year, which brings the total number of attendees at Churchill Downs over the weekend to something in the neighborhood of 280,000.

With the infield open, capacity at Churchill Downs is about 170,000, which makes it easily the largest venue among the three Triple Crown host sites. Belmont Park holds a little over 100,000, while Pimlico, home of the Preakness Stakes, holds about 120,000 with the infield open.

That’s a lot of people. As a result, it’s safe to say the Kentucky Derby is also making quite a bit of money.

How Much is Bet on the Kentucky Derby?

Betting numbers were down last year from where they were in 2015, but not by much. $192.6 million was wagered from all sources on the 2016 Derby weekend, which was down slightly from the $194.3 million that was bet on American Pharoah’s aforementioned triumph.

The Kentucky Derby itself (not including the Oaks) generated $124.7 million in bets. That was a substantial 10 percent dip from the $137.9 million bettors put on the Derby in 2015.

The numbers were actually better for on-track betting. $23.5 million worth of bets were placed at Churchill Downs in 2016, which was up two percent from 2015’s $23 million figure. The record for on-track betting came back in 2012 when the track took $23.7 million in wagers.

Kentucky Derby Fun Facts and Traditions

Traditions are big when it comes to the Derby. The pageantry and pre-race festivities are almost more of an attraction than the race itself. You may have heard that the mint julep is the official drink of the Derby. While mint juleps originated in Virginia, Kentucky got in on the act back in the 1830s. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Churchill Downs decided to make the julep the official cocktail of the Derby in 1938:

So, how did the mint julep end up being a Kentucky Derby drink?

“Simply put, propaganda involving sweeping verandas, Colonel Sanders-like characters, pretty girls and a bourbon industry needing a boost in the years following Prohibition. The mint julep was waning in popularity by the beginning of the 20th century, having fallen out of fashion with city folks as it migrated to the country and plantations with their own ice houses. In 1936, Kentucky author and humorist, Irvin S. Cobb, told tale of his “old Kentucky home” in his cocktail page-turner, “Irvin S. Cobb’s Own Recipe Book,” for the purposes of boosting bourbon sales. Cobb evoked images of beautiful belles blissfully sitting on large, white porches while gentlemen sipped concoctions like mint juleps on a warm summer day. The mint julep finally made Kentucky its forever home in 1938 when Churchill Downs named it the official drink of the Kentucky Derby and the rest, as they say, is history.”

About 120,000 mint juleps are sold on an average Kentucky Derby weekend, which is nearly one per attendee of the Derby itself. That’s a lot of drinkin’.

Fashion is another major player at the Derby. Lots of men choose to dress in old-timey suits, while most women will choose to wear dresses and gowns along with rather elaborate headwear. People don’t often have the opportunity to adorn such lavish clothing, so they certainly take full advantage of the chance to do so at Churchill Downs.

New England Patriots stars Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski have certainly made the most of their fashion choices at Derbies in the past.

Most think betting on the Derby just involves picking the winner or nailing something wild like a superfecta, but let’s not forget the props. Just like with the Super Bowl, various sites will offer prop bets on a variety of aspects surrounding the race itself.

Popular options may be bets such as:

Will the winner of the race finish in two minutes or less? Will the national anthem take two minutes or less? Will the margin be greater between the first and second place horses or the second and third place horses? By how many lengths will the winning horse win? You can even bet on the over/under for the winning horse’s winning time.

The Kentucky Derby is horse racing’s crown jewel event, and it’s easy to see why.

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