Derby Traditions

Derby Traditions

Because the Kentucky Derby is as old as Churchill Downs itself, you can bet that some time-honored traditions have emerged as a result. The Kentucky Derby showcases far more than just Thoroughbred horses, it is a display of hats, dress, drinks and attitude. Check out the traditions of the Kentucky Derby.


If you ever visit the Downs on Derby day, you will be consumed by the masquerade of hats of all shapes and varieties. There are frilly hats, big hats, fancy hats and silly hats. This tradition comes from the early days of horse racing, when gentlemen and their ladies wore hats to outdoor events, as it was considered proper for both men and women to wear a hat outside the house. Hats at the Derby hold a special recognition, as the wearing of hats has morphed into a grand show of symbolic reverence for the traditions of the past. It is even rumored that the hat you wear will influence your Derby betting outcome, so make sure to wear a special hat!

Derby HatCSS Template


The Mint Julep, the traditional beverage of the Kentucky Derby, is a tasty concoction of Kentucky Straight Bourbon, sugar and mint leaves. The drink has been associated with the Derby for at least a century, and is even served at the Downs year-round. Here is the official Early Times Mint Julep recipe:

The Early Times Mint Julep 

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • Sprigs of fresh mint
  • Crushed ice
  • Early Times Kentucky Whisky
  • Silver Julep cups

Make a simple syrup by boiling sugar and water together for five minutes. Cool and place in a covered container with six or eight sprigs of fresh mint, then refrigerate overnight. Make one julep at a time by filling a julep cup with crushed ice, adding one tablespoon mint syrup and two ounces of Early Times Kentucky Whisky. Stir rapidly with a spoon to frost the outside of the cup. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.


"My Old Kentucky Home" is believed to have been played for the first time at the Derby for the 47th running. This Derby Day tradition began as the Courier-Journal reported "To the strains of 'My Old Kentucky Home' Kentuckians gave vent their delight. For Kentucky triumphed in the Derby." The story refers to the famous victory of Kentucky-owned and bred Behave Yourself. Since 1936, with a few exceptions, the song has been played by the University of Louisville Marching Band as the horses walk to the starting gate.

"My Old Kentucky Home" - By Stephen Foster

The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,
Tis summer, the people are gay;
The corn-top's ripe and the meadow's in the bloom
While the birds make music all the day.

The young folks roll on the little cabin floor
All merry, all happy and bright;
By'n by hard times comes a knocking at the door
Then my old Kentucky home, Good-night!

Weep no more my lady. Oh! Weep no more today!
We will sing one song for my old Kentucky home
For the old Kentucky home, far away.