A Hard-Hitting Google Investigation into the Kentucky Derby

The Internet told me yesterday that the Kentucky Derby is happening this weekend, and for the first time in my life, I thought, “Wait, what actually happens at the Kentucky Derby?” Maybe you were thinking the same thing, so never fear, friend. I did some research so we can all know what’s going on. Or, I tried to. I found myself falling into an Internet hole where I had to look up what a “dam” and “dosage” are, and why the genealogy of a horse is recited in the same way as that of an elf in Middle Earth. Join me on my Google journey through the Kentucky Derby.

First of all, this is just the coolest visual guide to the Kentucky Derby that exists. And probably the only one, which I found after hours inside the wormhole. If you are limited in your “Research The Kentucky Derby” time, just check that out and skip the rest of this article. Otherwise, let’s continue on investigating the “murky yet thinner soup being served this year at Churchill Downs.” I have no idea what that metaphor means, nor why horses are like soup, but that link will give you a rundown of every single horse and its ranking.

James C. Nicholson, who sounds like an important person, thinks the Derby is “America’s Premier Sporting Event” and wrote an appropriately titled book, The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event. I’m not sure how you judge what is or isn’t America’s “premier sporting event,” but last year the Derby had 170,513 in attendance, which is more than any Super Bowl in history. So they certainly have the numbers going for them. But “premier” still seems a bit of a stretch—I mean, how many people do you know who can legitimately be called fans of horse racing? I think I know one, and I have over a thousand Facebook friends whom I consistently use as a highly scientific sample. Maybe I’m just not a fancy enough person to know fans of the sport, though.

After getting this basic information, I started really digging my Google hole, and asking some hard-hitting questions, such as:

How long does it take for the horses to run at the Kentucky Derby?

The race is considered “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” But that sounds like a really unsubstantiated claim, because have you seen the last two minutes of a tennis grand slam, or the two minutes of a ninth-inning, bases-loaded play in baseball, or the two minutes of a golfer lining up his shot, which is apparently really exciting to some people? I have. And the first two examples are really exciting.

What’s up with the horses’ funny names?

The horses of the Kentucky Derby have some weird names. This year, we have such gems as Oscar Nominated and SuddenBreakingNew, although they aren’t as weird as Pants on Fire or Regret, which are actual horse names from years past. The names are so odd because of the mysterious and all-powerful authority of naming: The Jockey Club, which has a lot of rules and rejects a lot of names that are submitted. They veto names with innuendos (although people sneak plenty in), or repeats, and probably ones they just don’t like, because they can.

This year’s horses were named after high-school friends, hockey players, and somebody’s mom.

How does gambling work at the race?

I looked this up and immediately regretted it, because there was a lot of terminology I did not understand. And worse, there were numbers. Equations, even. Pari-mutuel betting? Exotic bets? These sound fancy and mathematical, and I am not going to delve into them.

But according to the simple visual guide, there are some fun terms we can learn and whip out at the Derby party everyone else is apparently invited to, but not me. A “bridge jumper” is someone who bets a lot on one horse–if they lose, they may be jumping off the nearest bridge. (I would use Google to see if that has ever happened, but it sounds like a real downer.)

An “exacta” is a wager in which the bettor picks two specific horses–in order–to finish in first and second place. A “trifecta” involves picking the top three finishers in order, and a “superfecta” requires you to pick the first four finishers in exact order. They might also be characters from Marvel movies.

What are jockeys, and where do they come from?

This is what my sister, who seems to believe that jockeys are some sort of exotic human subspecies, asked me when I told her about this article. When I started to look up jockeys, the first suggested search was “how are jockeys so small,” so of course I searched that, because I am a suggestible person. Well, some jockeys maintain such a low weight by vomiting a lot and taking diuretics, and generally living a super-unhealthy lifestyle. So, that’s actually really sad.

If the jockeys have to be so small, why aren’t there more female jockeys? Women tend to be smaller than men. Apparently, the sport of horse racing can be a little unwelcoming to women; some female jockeys face chants of “get back in the kitchen!” and a general lack of opportunity. But around ten percent of jockeys are women, and there is hope that the number will increase.

But the Kentucky Derby is really about the horses, and not the human people riding them. Horse coverage far outweighs jockey coverage, and the love of the horses goes far enough that some consider them persons, in which case people would be riding on the backs of other people, and that would be a little uncomfortable.

Where do the horses come from?

Well, let me tell you, these horses come from prestigious families that make the royal families of Europe look paltry in comparison. Horse people are really serious about pedigree. They have a whole science and rating system behind it called “dosage,” which is not, in fact, about feeding steroids to the horses.

Look at this article about the horse Pleasantly Perfect. I had to look up about every fourth word to make sure I knew what is going on. Check this out: “Pleasantly Perfect, now 18 and standing at the Turkish National Stud, is by 1981 Kentucky Derby winner Pleasant Colony (by His Majesty, by Ribot) and out of a mare by 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed”. It’s like something out of the Bible.

“Ribot was the father of His Majesty,

His Majesty the father of Pleasant Colony,

Pleasant Colony the father of Pleasantly Perfect, whose mother was Affirmed

And lo, did win the Triple Crown in The Year Of Our Lord 1978” Equines 3:5-8

Pleasantly Perfect himself is a sire of many horses that apparently come in “crops,” and everyone hopes that a crop will contain a Derby winner. One of his sons, Whitmore, will race at this year’s Derby. But Pleasantly Perfect is “standing” in Turkey (which means he’s making more baby horses). And that is apparently a shameful thing to happen to a horse, because “the last time a Derby winner was sired by a horse who stands or stood in Turkey was… of course, never.” Ah, of course! Because of the shame of being in Turkey! The horror!

I don’t know. While I’m smart enough to understand things like horse genetics, the emphasis on family here seems a little intense to me.

Why do the ladies wear fancy hats? Can men wear fancy hats?

The really gorgeous and/or outlandish hat-wearing is a tradition started by a man (Colonel Merriweather Lewis Clark Jr., who wins the award for Most American Name, and who also started the blanket-of-roses-on-the-horse thing). Hats range from “elegant designer” to “made myself with my hot glue gun and everything I could find in the garage.” Although it was a man who first encouraged the hat-wearing, the men in the crowd generally do not wear fancy hats. Instead, they are encouraged to wear “fun” patterned suits, and to keep the hats toned down. Sexism, I say! Crazy hats for all! Hat equality! Votes for hats!

So there you have it. All your most pressing questions about the Kentucky Derby have been answered. I have done my part to share the Good News of America’s premier sporting event. Get your hats ready, your bridge-jumping bets prepared, and enjoy those two exciting minutes!


Mary Ellen Dingley is already excited to Google The Preakness. You should follow her on Twitter.


  1. Post By d4austus

    Thanks Mary Ellen! The Kentucky Derby would have forever remained a nebulous fact perennially intruding at the perimeter of my awareness without your diligent and amusing investigative reporting.

    My best guess as to the meaning of “murky yet thinner soup,” which you probably understand better than you let on, is that this year’s horses are less impressive than last year’s cohort (thinner), and as a result they seem more evenly matched (murky). Glue might have served as a better metaphor under the circumstances.

    One question: in all your google investigation, did you figure out what this enormous crowd does with itself while awaiting a two minute race of admittedly awesome horses ridden by weirdly small human beings – besides admiring each other’s fancy hats?

  2. Post By Mary Ellen

    Unfortunately no, I did not find out exactly what they do for that entire time, but I do know there is singing and betting and eating and perhaps a fashion parade?

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