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What's a mint julep? Your Kentucky Derby burning questions answered

May 2, 2014 at 2:08 PM ET

With the running of the Kentucky Derby coming up Saturday, it's time for funny hats, mint juleps and plenty of other scenes that might leave you scratching your head. 

What is a mint julep and why is it such a big deal at the Kentucky Derby? Why are so many women wearing hats out of a 1950s beauty pageant? We have the answers to those burning questions and more as the 140th running of the Derby kicks off the first race of horse racing's prestigious Triple Crown. 

The 140th running of the Kentucky Derby will be held Saturday at Churchill Downs in Lexington.
Matt Slocum / AP
The 140th running of the Kentucky Derby will be held Saturday at Churchill Downs in Lexington.

Q: What is a mint julep, why is it traditionally served in a silver cup, and why is it the official Kentucky Derby drink? 

A: Around 1815, Kentuckians started receiving silver cups as prizes at county fairs, about 12 years after the first mention of whiskey being in a mint julep, according to Fred Minnick, the bourbon official for the Kentucky Derby Museum and the author of "Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch & Irish Whiskey." 

A 1908 article quoted Samuel Judson of Lexington, Ky., offering up the recipe for a mint julep, which had already become a Kentucky staple.  

"Take a silver cup—always a silver cup,'' Judson said. "Fill it with ice pulverized to the fineness of snow. Bruise one tender little leaf of mint and stick it in the ice. Then dissolve a spoonful of sugar in about three-quarters of a Kentucky drink of good whiskey and let the fluid filter through the ice to the bottom of the cup. Shake the cup slowly until a coating of a thick white frost forms on the outside. Trim with mint and hand to an appreciative gentleman.”

About 2,250 pounds of fresh mint will be used to serve up mint juleps to the crowd as part of the annual tradition at Churchill Downs for Saturday's Kentucky Derby.
David Harpe / AP
About 2,250 pounds of fresh mint will be used to serve up mint juleps to the crowd as part of the annual tradition at Churchill Downs for Saturday's Kentucky Derby.

Mint juleps were served at Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby, at the racetrack's inception in 1875 and became a track staple in 1938, when they sold for 38 cents apiece in souvenir glasses, according to Minnick. From 1938 through 1952 less than 100,000 Kentucky Derby glasses were annually produced. As of February this year, 500,472 julep glasses have been made for Saturday's Kentucky Derby.

Churchill Downs President Bill Corum introduced the sterling silver julep cups in 1951. The cup was an idea of Col. Matt Winn, Corum’s predecessor who died in 1949, who had discussed with Downs’s officials his feeling that there should be another official, useful souvenir of the Kentucky Derby.

The julep cup, which features a small horseshoe and holds 12 fluid ounces, plays an important role in Kentucky Derby folklore. Traditionally, the governor of Kentucky salutes the victorious Derby owner with a toast at the fashionable Winner’s Party following the race.

All the mint used for the Derby drinks is made in Louisville. An average of 120,000 bottles of Early Times whiskey are consumed along with 10,000 bottles of Early Times Mint Julep ready-to-serve cocktail, 2,250 pounds of fresh mint and 60,000 pounds of ice, according to Minnick. For those who really want to go big, bourbon distiller Woodford Reserve is selling a $1,000 mint julep served in a gold-plated, hand-engraved mint julep cup. 

Q: Why are so many of the women wearing elaborate hats and outfits in the stands at the Derby? 

A: The Kentucky Derby has been a place for spectacular female fashion since its beginning in the late 19th century, as race founder Colonel M. Lewis Clark Jr. wanted it to be like European horse racing featuring wealthy patrons dressed to the nines, according to Katherine Veitschegger, curator of collections at the Kentucky Derby Museum. 

Women usually wore silk dresses due to the warm spring weather, which they often accessorized with gloves, a hat and a parasol. The hat and gloves remained in fashion through the 1940s, and the post-war prosperity of the 1950s allowed more women to dress in style in suits and skirts. The louder and more elaborate hats gained prominence in the 1960s when socialites took pleasure in showing them off at the newly-opened "Millionaires Row" section of expensive box seats at Churchill Downs. 

A spectator wears a fancy hat before the 138th Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs Saturday, May 5, 2012, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Matt S...
Matt Slocum / AP
A spectator wears a fancy hat before the 138th Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs Saturday, May 5, 2012, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

This trend of bigger, more spectacular hats might have developed due to the fact that while society was loosening its grip on the hat and glove formality, the Kentucky Derby offered women a place to continue the old traditions. Patterns and prints were also brighter, and hemlines were defiantly raised, yielding a much different look than years before. The hats may have gotten louder and more elaborate because, even though society wasn't as formal, the Derby was a place to celebrate the traditional style, according to Veitschegger. Derby style now has trended toward sundresses, cotton skirts and shorts for women, and men have also started to join in the elaborate hat show. 

Q: Has a female jockey ever won the Kentucky Derby? 

A: No woman has ever ridden a horse to a win in the Kentucky Derby or finished in the money by placing in the top three. The highest finish ever by a female jockey was by Rosie Nopravnik, 26, who took fifth aboard Mylute in last year's race after having previously placed ninth in 2011. Nopravnik will take another crack at history while riding Vicar's in Trouble on Saturday to become the first woman to compete in the Derby three times. 

The first female jockey to compete in the Kentucky Derby was Diane Crump, who took 15th aboard Fathom in 1970. Six different women have ridden in the race overall, with Nopravnik and Julie Krone, widely considered to be the best female jockey of all time, each riding in it twice. In 1993, Krone became the first female jockey to ever win a Triple Crown race when she rode Colonial Affair to victory in the Belmont Stakes. 

Q: How is the starting order determined for the horses on the track? 

A: It's by random selection. This year's race will feature 21 horses, and their order from closest to the rail on the inside of the track to the far outside is determined by the traditional method of a "pill pull." Entry blanks for each horse are pulled simultaneously with a numbered pill, and that number determines which stall the horse will break from at the starting gate. 

Starting position, which is determined by a random draw, can be crucial when it comes to winning the Kentucky Derby.
Jamie Squire / Getty Images
Starting position, which is determined by a random draw, can be crucial when it comes to winning the Kentucky Derby.

Post position is usually crucial to a horse's chances of winning, depending on the length of the race. For sprints that only feature one turn around the track, getting the outside post is usually the favorable draw, and for longer races in which the horses go twice around the track, the inside post is usually the better position. The Kentucky Derby is known as "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports," so it is a sprint around the track, which is 1 1/4-miles long. 

California Chrome, which is the odds-on favorite to win Saturday's race, drew post position 5, which is closer to the inside rail. 

Q: What if it rains? 

A: To paraphrase Cosmo Kramer, you better hope the mother of the horse you picked was a mudder. The race, now entering its 140th running, has never been postponed through rain, sleet and hail. The horses and jockeys compete in the muck if necessary. In 1918, it poured to the tune of 2.31 inches at Churchill Downs and the race was still run. In 2012, just under two inches of rain came down. 

Bad weather is not an uncommon occurrence at the Derby, as 46 percent of all Derby days have experienced rain at some point, according to the National Weather Service. Churchill Downs has had torrential rains this week, but no rain is expected for Saturday's race. 

Madelynne Myers of Louisville, Kentucky
Luke Sharrett
Known as the “Greatest Two Minutes in Sports,” the Kentucky Derby horse race and the festivities around it are steeped in history, tradition, style and Kentucky bourbon. Here’s a look back at the Kentucky Derby over the years.

Q: Who are the biggest long shots to ever win the race? 

A: The biggest payday in the history of the race came in 1913, when Donerail, a 91.45-1 long shot, won the Derby. People who placed a $2 bet took home $184.90, which is the equivalent of $4,413 in today's money, adjusting for inflation. 

As far as the modern era, there have been two horses that overcame steep odds to win in the last nine years. A pair of 50-1 longshots, Giacomo in 2005 and Mine That Bird in 2009, took home the crown and turned a $2 bet into just over $100. 

As of Thursday, the horses with the longest odds in this year's field, all at 50-1, were Harry's Holiday, We Miss Artie, Commanding Curve, and AE-Pablo Del Monte. The favorite, California Chrome is a 5-2 favorite leading up to the race, which means a $2 bet will win you $7. 

The real winners if their horse wins the race are the owners, who collect a $1,442,800 purse for the victory. They also will reap more benefits when it comes to breeding. The stud fee, or charge for the horse to breed with a female horse, can range from $30,000 to $150,000 for a Derby winner.  

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