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Kentucky Derby Day

While most of my ancestors hail from the hardy north, I do have a small, albeit slight, connection to the south. And it is that connection, through my Great Grandmother Ida Ballard and her Ballards and Mankins who hail from the south prior to their Oklahoma migration, that I cling to every year, first weekend of May.

Kentucky Derby, ahhhh yes. There is nothing like that feast for the eyes.

And every year I make a promise to myself that someday, yes someday, I will visit Churchill Downs during the Derby. I've visited off season. It's not the same. Truly just a shell of what it becomes during the Derby.

And every year my family celebrates the Derby in some fashion. From dinner parties, to toast points on the fly, to running into the club house before a game of golf to catch the race; we do our very best to somehow celebrate it in the midst of a busy life.

And this year is no exception. A busy weekend? You could say that. Mother's Day, Cinco de Mayo, and yes, the 137th annual Kentucky Derby. But truly, there isn't anything better than a busy weekend!

First a little history. Horse racing in Kentucky dates to as early as 1787 when the first course was laid out in Lexington. It wasn't, however, until 100 years later, an 80-acre land purchase, $32,000 raised in membership fees and a huge dream would, in 1875, officially open Churchill Downs and create the lasting legacy of the Kentucky Derby.

On May 17, 1875, the first Kentucky Derby, fashioned after England's Epsom Derby, drew a crowd of 10,000 spectators and they wagered approximately $50,000. In 2009, Business Wire reports a crowd of 153,563 spectators and total wagers of $104,563,501. (I couldn't find data for 2010).

Along with spectacular Thoroughbred horses, acres of meticulously groomed gardens and roses, mint juleps, and the tune of "My Old Kentucky Home," one can't, of course, miss the hats.

And like the track itself, the tradition of wearing these dramatic hats is also rooted in centuries of protocol, primarily from the United Kingdom's world famous Royal Ascot where it was decreed, "All guests within the Royal Enclosure adhere to a strict dress code: male attendees must wear full morning dress including a top hat, whilst ladies must not show bare midriffs or shoulders and must wear hats."

The Kentucky Derby has long been associated with its sometimes outlandish but always spectacularly fashioned hats. And, if truth be told, one of the main reasons I long to visit every year. "Derby hats are always dramatic, said Rita Manzelmann-Browne, head buyer at Miss Jackson's in Utica Square. This year, though, the '70s-era, floppy wide-brim hats are especially popular."

And here we sit in 2011; 137 years after the first race at Kentucky Derby, and 300 years after the first Royal Ascot race of 1711 where Derby traditions were copied. And while our world has modernized and become more casual; some traditions remain firm and solid. And as our world becomes more socially connected, it only serves to further solidify those traditions ... for truly, who wants to be caught at the Derby without the proper ... hat? Facebook photos, beware!

Yes, a dress code remains. From the official Kentucky Derby website, I found the following:

Being one of the more stylish sporting events of the year, it is important to know what attire is acceptable when attending the Kentucky Derby.

Business casual is required for the Jockey Club and Finish Line suites, Aristides & Stakes rooms, and the Turf Club.

Business casual is best described as the following:

Jackets and Blazers
Vests, collard shirts, and sweaters

Denim, jeans, shorts and tennis shoes are not allowed or appropriate.

So whether you host a southern Kentucky Derby party, watch the Derby on the fly or merely catch the 2-minute replay on your sports channel in the midst of a very busy weekend, don't forget to watch for the hats.

If you're interested in the history behind some of the best known and anticipated foods, including recipes, and my own menu for the Kentucky Derby, click here to visit Good Living Magazine.


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