Pop Culture and Kentucky Derby: What You Need To Know

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

Ahh, the Kentucky Derby. Bastion of crazy hats, slick fashions, and great excuses for throwing killer parties. Throughout the years, the Derby has taken on a language and mythology of its own. From the piece that changed sports journalism to the exclusion of the most famous little-horse-that-could that ever existed, the Derby is ripe for pop culture lovers. Here are four big pop culture moments (or anti-moments, such as our first) involving the Kentucky Derby.

1. Seabiscuit
This is where all your minds went, right? After all, “The American Legend” was introduced to the racing world as an undersized non-competitor. The horse was never expected to win a single race, yet he went on to win all the glories of horse racing, including one of the most popular cinematic biopics of a horse. Certainly the only one starring Toby Maguire, Jeff Bridges, and Chris Cooper. He must have won the Kentucky Derby like eight million times, right? Wrong. Seabiscuit wasn’t even eligible to compete in the Kentucky Derby because he was four years old when he began winning races, and you’ve got to be three or younger to compete in the Derby. We’ll give you a moment to lie down and contemplate your life.

2. “My Old Kentucky Home”
This subtitle should have been “The Ironic One,” because the official song of both the state of Kentucky and the Kentucky Derby had some mixed-up origins. Stephen Foster wrote it in the 1850s after reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but not many people listened to it until the 1920s. Folks thought it was inspired by a mansion (read: the total opposite), a fact that wasn’t really disputed until the 1960s, when the words were rewritten to make it a bit more, erm, couth. That said, the song’s famous in pop culture–even a Mad Men episode was named after it–and it’s been played at the Derby by the University of Louisville almost every year since 1936. And it’s been used in a plethora of movies including, confusingly, the 1948 The Story of Seabiscuit.

3. The Legend of the Mint Julep
Yes, drinks are part of pop culture, a stance I will defend until I’ve had approximately two of the said cocktails. This one is legend, but legends are often more fun than facts. One of Poland’s most famous actresses from the 1800s is Helena Modjeska. The stage actress eventually gained U.S. citizenship and loved the Kentucky Derby. Rumor has it, she ordered a mint julep one morning before breakfast at the Derby (because that’s what you do at the Derby) and raved about it. Since then, it’s become the official-unofficial drink of the Derby.

4. The Hunter S. Thompson Piece
Before he was Hunter S. Thompson, Hunter S. Thompson was just every newspaper and magazine editor’s worst nightmare. A writer who basically ignored actual assignments, did whatever he wanted, and then wrote about it. And in doing so, he changed sports journalism forever with his incredibly famous piece “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” a story that, despite its title or maybe because of it, really makes you want to attend the Derby. Instead of covering it like a newsman–stating who won the races, etc.–he simply went and wrote about his experience. Which included mint juleps. Lots of mint juleps. It’s the most iconic piece of pop culture out there about the Derby and well-worth the time it takes to read.

5. The Party
This one isn’t a moment so much as what you should be doing right about now: getting ready to throw a Derby party or getting ready to attend one. After all, Derby is one of the most important races of the year, but it’s also about having a good time. We wish everyone the best of Derby. Our Style Editor Stephanie Granada will be reporting from the Derby red carpet. Follow along with her @SGranada.

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