What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Kentucky Derby?
For me, it was always the elaborately decorated hats, floral dresses, men in pastel-colored suits and drinking all the mint juleps you could get your hands on in anticipation of a horse race (that you may or may not have placed a bet on) that lasts all of two minutes. To be honest, I never really cared that much for the Derby, it always snuck up on me and I never had an outfit planned – however, it was always an excuse to get together with friends in celebration of spring time and (hopefully) some good day drinking weather. While this post was originally intended to share some of the best places Denver has to partake in the festivities – I would be remiss to not talk about the origin of this event and the ongoing inequality that still exists within the sport. So, I’d like to use this as an opportunity to help educate and speak on a very important social issue we are still facing as a society – systemic racism. Stick with me please, I know this isn’t the easiest thing to talk about – but it’s important. The steps to change start with acknowledging the injustice in the past and educating yourself, as well as others, of the impact we still see today. I’m not saying ditch the hats this weekend, but please use this day as an opportunity to educate others and advance the changes our country so desperately needs.
A Little History
The Kentucky Derby has its origins in Louisville, Kentucky, where Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. hoped to originate a race similar to the derbies held in Surrey in the UK and the Grand Prix in France. He organized the Louisville Jockey Club, which evolved in to the Kentucky Derby. The very first race was won by Oliver Lewis, an African American champion jockey from Fayette County. In fact, the race continued to be dominated by Black riders for some time. Isaac Burns Murphy competed in eleven races and won three of them in 1884, 1890, and 1891. Willie Simms won the trophy in 1896 and 1898 and was inducted in to the US Racing Hall of Fame after winning five of the races that would become the Triple Crown Series.
Sadly, the Derby experienced a noticeable and controversial decline in the number of Black competitors. In fact, the last Black rider to win the Derby was Jimmy Winkfield in 1902. So what happened? It seems that, in the wake of Jim Crow, Black jockeys were systematically denied the ability to renew their racing licenses. By 1911, there were hardly any Black racers competing in the Kentucky Derby.
Last year, Churchill Downs released a statement addressing systemic racism in the Derby. It acknowledges the exclusion of Black participation in the sport, while committing to change. This year, I am looking forward to cheering on Kendrick Carmouche, the first Black jockey to race in the Kentucky Derby since 2013, and only the second US-born African American to compete since 1921. The son of a jockey, he has won 3400 races since starting his career in 2000. Just this month on April 3, he took the Wood Memorial on a horse with 72-1 odds. This Saturday, he will be riding the same horse, Bourbonic, but with slightly more favorable odds at 30-1.
Where to Watch
Max’s Gill & Grill
This happens to be one of my favorite spots in Denver in general, and it is where I plan on spending the day this year. Max’s on Historic Gaylord Street has held an annual Derby Day celebration for the last thirteen years. Doors open at 10 am for brunch, which includes seafood spins on breakfast classics like the Crabby Benedict: a version that incorporates crabcakes and asparagus. A cover charge of $5 will be in effect from 2-5 pm. DJ-hosted music, dancing, and contests for Best Hat and Best-Dressed are sure to make this a lively and stylish affair.
Four Seasons Hotel
The Four Seasons Hotel in Denver is hosting an exclusive viewing party on their pool terrace. Southern-inspired decor, plenty of Mint Juleps, and fun photo opportunities make this event especially Instagram-worthy. The party starts at 2pm. Tickets are $40 per person and each guest will have access to the terrace viewing party and preferential entry to Edge, the hotel’s signature steakhouse.
Avanti Food & Beverage
Avanti is a unique food hall that boasts seven different mini-restaurants in one shared space, with food options ranging from burgers to pizza to dumplings. They are hosting a Derby Day party from 12-5pm, with tables given on a first-come, first-serve basis. You can also purchase a table ahead of time. The party will offer Kentucky-themed food specials, Mint Julep variations, a DJ, and a photo booth. This one also features a Best Dressed Group contest. There is also a new location in Boulder!
The Monkey Barrel
Monkey Barrel on Tejon is hosting a “Crawfish and Kentucky Derby” party. The bar has plenty of flatscreens to view the race while you sample from over 20 different craft beers and enjoy a traditional crawfish boil, courtesy of Bayou Boys. The event is free but space is limited. Reserve your spot here.
Union Station will be hosting three “styled experiences” to celebrate Derby Day this year. Unfortunately, the Cooper Lounge and VIP Derby and After-Party events are sold out. But the The Terminal Bar is still offering patio and Great Hall seating on a first-come, first-serve basis. This will include, live music, drink specials, and a projection of the race broadcast in the Great Hall. Seating starts at Noon, so get there early to secure your spot!
Wherever you land for Derby Day, I encourage you to reflect on the history of the race, both the good and the bad. Celebrate the illustrious Black jockeys without whom the race would never have become so successful. Acknowledge and condemn the Derby’s racist period, which is ongoing. And stand in a little bit of hope with the inspiring Black jockeys today who are defeating the odds and retaking their place in the sport.