Here are five reasons not to miss the event, which will be held Saturday at Churchill Downs race track in Louisville, Kentucky.
1. It’s America’s longest running sports event
The first Kentucky Derby was held on May 17, 1875, when a crowd of 10,000 saw three-year-old chestnut colt Aristides, ridden by African-American jockey Oliver Lewis, triumph at Churchill Downs.
The Derby has been held at the same venue ever since, even during both World Wars and the Great Depression of the 1930s, making it the country’s longest continuously held sports event.
The 144th edition of the mile-and-a-quarter race for three-year-old thoroughbreds is expected to attract more than 150,000 spectators.
The Derby is the first leg of racing’s prestigious Triple Crown, which also consists of the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore and the Belmont Stakes in Belmont Park, New York.
2. It has literary history
The Kentucky Derby has been covered by some of America’s most famous writers.
In 1925, New York sports columnist Bill Corum called the Derby the “Run for the Roses” because the winning horse gets draped in a garland of hundreds of red roses.
In 1935, legendary Tennessee-born sports writer Grantland Rice described the race like this:
“Those two minutes and a second or so of derby running carry more emotional thrills, per second, than anything sport can show.”
His phrase has since been shortened to describe the Derby as “the most exciting two minutes in sports” or “the greatest two minutes in sports.”
In 1955, American author William Faulkner, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize and a Southerner like Rice, covered the race for Sports Illustrated.
3. It has legendary winners
In 1973, Secretariat won the Derby in a time of one minute, 59.4 seconds, a record that still stands to this day. By comparison, last year’s race was won by Always Dreaming, ridden by jockey John Velazquez, in a time of two minutes 3.59 seconds.
Secretariat, also known as “Big Red,” went on to clinch the Triple Crown in 1973, ending a 25-year wait.
In 2006, Barbaro captured the public’s imagination with an epic Derby win followed by a heroic fight against injury. After becoming only the sixth horse to win the Derby with an unbeaten record, Barbaro looked like he could be on the way to the Triple Crown when disaster struck in the Preakness Stakes two weeks later — he shattered his leg shortly after getting out of the starting gates.
Barbaro was put down by his owners eight months later, unable to overcome the complications he had suffered after the accident.
But his fight to overcome his injury triggered an outpouring of public support for the horse and his owners the world over. His ashes are now buried at Churchill Downs, while a bronze statue of the horse was erected at the race track in 2009.
In 2015, American Pharoah became the first horse to win the coveted Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. The horse made the cover of Sports Illustrated and was photographed by fashion magazine Vogue.
4. It attracts the rich and famous
The Derby has always been a draw for the rich and famous, with some of the biggest stars in sports, fashion and Hollywood mixing with royalty.
Previous Derby guests include Britain’s Princess Margaret, boxer Muhammad Ali, U.S. Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, Hollywood legends Lana Turner and Bing Crosby, baseball star Babe Ruth and in recent years, singer Justin Timberlake, actor Jack Nicholson, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and NFL star Eli Manning.
5. The favorite tends to do well
Last year’s win by Always Dreaming marked the fifth year in a row the pre-race favorite had won the race, the most since the 1890s.
If you fancy a punt, this year’s Derby looks like a very open race, with Justify, trained by American Pharaoh’s handler Bob Baffert, heading the betting ahead of Aidan O’Brien’s Irish raider Mendelssohn.
No European horse has ever won the Kentucky Derby.