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Think it through, Americana quiz lovers, if you are sports animal lovers (hint, hint), flower lovers, hat aficionados. Yes! They are the Triple Crown hosting states. Spring is upon us, so it is time to talk about thoroughbred horse racing’s shining achievements.
The three jewels are:
- The Kentucky Derby – Louisville, Kentucky
- The Preakness – Baltimore, Maryland
- The Belmont Stakes – Elmont, New York
Much is written, deservedly, about the horses, the trainers, and the jockeys of the prime spring thoroughbred racing events.
We thought we would write about the outstanding triad of races while emphasizing some of the fascinating periphery.
What goes on surrounding these three notable events in local celebrations and food, stylish dress — especially those hats (!), and — our two favorite related subjects — gorgeous and most fragrant flowers, and — wait for it — the songs and music.
Triple Crown horses run for fame and flowers
Each of these horse races stands on its own. But together they form the wonderful series of three-year-old thoroughbred races that we call the Triple Crown. That astonishing trophy goes to the horse, if the horse, manages to win all three.
The achieving jockey, trainer, and owners go down in history as gifted in equine history. As well as earning a bunch of money. Assuming the horse is a colt, that animal will go on to have a storied breeding life, earning much more for its humans.
The races have been held since 1875 or so. The first horse to win all three was Sir Barton in 1919.
There have been 13 in all that have achieved that.
These Grade 1 Stakes affairs have been around a long time (since before the turn of the 20th century) and are part of beloved Americana.
The horses that run are all 3-year-olds and carry 126 pounds (colts and geldings) or 121 pounds (fillies).
It isn’t necessary for a horse to be in all 3 contests. In fact, some are entered in only 1 or 2. However, the big deal is if a horse does come in first all 3 times: that is the Triple Crown.
It is a celebrated occurrence that only 13 have achieved, in all those races that have been held since the early 1900s (when the dates and order of the trio of races stabilized and the series recognized as such).
We are not sure what was the greatest Triple Crown story. But high among them must have been the 1978 battles between Affirmed and Alydar.
Some have called the Belmont Stakes between them the greatest thoroughbred horse race. Affirmed raced into Triple Crown history.
Until 2015, there had been a 37-year drought since that previous winner, Affirmed, in 1978! Then, the great stallion, American Pharaoh finally blew through.
If you read the sports pages in May and June each year, you are probably aware that there have been two recent heroes. After that many-year wasteland between the triumphs of Affirmed and American Pharoah, amazingly, there was another three-race winner as soon as 2018 in Justify’s run.
Understandably there is a lot of anticipation: could there be a third triple win so soon? Of course, there could, each year is independent! And it did happen in the 1970s: the magnificent Secretariat in 1973 and the honorable Seattle Slew in 1977, the year prior to Affirmed’s triumph. Well, it’s pretty exciting to speculate.
The elegant trophy that is given to the winning owner was created by Cartier and first given in 1950. Retrospectively the earlier winners received one, and each year thereafter through American Pharoah’s year (2015).
After that Roberto Santo, the
Both styles have triangular aspects such that the three stakes races are each featured on a side.
Even so, we are not really here to comment astutely about who may gallop best. Though we dearly love horses, we are not qualified to go on about racing potential.
However, we are qualified to go on about the celebrations and happenings that surround them. Anybody would be! And we have the enthusiasm to go with it.
Flowers, hats, and partying
There is a lot to enjoy that happens around race time at each of the courses and in the cities that host. You probably know some of it, maybe a lot. But we bet we come up with some treasures to discuss that might be new to you. Let’s have some fun time. If we can’t be there, let’s talk about it, at least!
Oddly, it may seem to you, we got interested in doing this post because we became fascinated by the flowered wreath that the winning horse wears at the victory stand. We determined that we wanted to know more about those.
It has even been suggested this should be called the “Flower Crown”, rather than the Triple Crown, since there seem to be flowers everywhere, especially covering the winning horses.
From that, it was easy to come upon equal interest in the fun custom of elaborate hats common to these occasions. Writing away, we got hungry (and thirsty), so you can tell where that led! Let’s talk about the eats!
Something you may not be aware of is how much else is scheduled in these cities to enhance the racing celebrations. We were especially caught up by the elaborate week-long doings in the Louisville area that are quite popular drawing up to the big day. People come from all over the country and take days of holidays to enjoy and be there; even though they may not have tickets for the big thoroughbred race itself.
Kentucky Derby – Run for the roses
You don’t have to be more than a casual racehorse fan to be able to say which American thoroughbred race is famous as the “Run for the Roses”. Of course, it is the Kentucky Derby.
We must admit it was watching the colts run on the first Saturday in May, that got us interested in being up on these thoroughbred affairs. How many years have we watched? (You’ve guessed right! We are yearly TV fans.)
Kentucky Derby facts
- Race: Kentucky Derby
- Year started: 1875
- Location: Churchill Downs, Louisville, KY (also called Twin Spires)
- When held: First Saturday in May
- Triple Crown: First leg
nownas: “The most exciting 2 minutes in sports”
- Also called: “The Run for the Roses”
- Flower: Red rose
- Song: My Old Kentucky Home
- Food: Derby pie
- Beverage: Mint julep
The Derby is held the first Saturday in May in Louisville at the Churchill Downs Racetrack (a National Historic Landmark). It is treated as an extraordinary event in those parts.
There are all sorts of happenings during a week or two-long festival before the big day.
Many are scheduled races of all sorts: hot air balloons, waiters, people racing, steamboats … you name it.
And parties. And food: How about some Derby Pie?
The most exciting two minutes in sports.
Churchill Downs and its Derby were envisioned and initiated by Meriwether Lewis Clark
The race and the red roses
Roses are a longtime Derby tradition and most likely its most prominent one.
Every time it’s the same thing:
The very happy winning, and grinning,
This he drapes over the neck and withers of the still excited although tired three-year-old champion.
It looks beautiful. Major photo op!
It appears that by about 10 years after the first races (in 1884), Meriwether Clark started presenting the jockey who won each year’s race with a bouquet of roses. The red rose became the official flower by 1904.
Wouldn’t you know it would be a colorful sports columnist who would coin the nickname the “Run for the Roses”? This was in 1925 and the interested New York writer was Bill Corum.
The 1932 horse Burgoo King had the honor of wearing the first garland of roses when he won. It’s been a strong tradition since.
Watch the video to see the history of the garland and the modern story of the Freedom roses.
Oh, the hats!
One aspect that gets a lot of attention is the wearing of extravagant and flamboyant hats. (That is by the people, not the horses.) They are commonly embellished with a profusion of flowers. Most frequently, of course, roses. But all sorts, shapes, and styles are what you’ll see.
You can purchase great hats, spending just about any price you want and can afford. After the event you can submit your fine bonnet to the Kentucky Derby Museum. If they think it is grand, too, they’ll accept it into their collection for a year!
But something special and fun to do is to make your own! See a simple way to create a definitely nice looking in this video.
It’s easy to realize how you can change it up to match your imagination and your outfit.
Sing the beloved song of home
“My Old Kentucky Home”, composed by Stephen Foster (the “father of American music”) in 1852, is the song everyone associates (and probably everyone can sing, if not cry over). It may have been first played at starting time in 1921. It is usually performed at the race each year by the University of Louisville Marching Band.
My Old Kentucky Home lyrics
The sun shines
brightin the old Kentucky home, Tissummer, the people are gay;
corn-top’sripe 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 moreStephen Foster
mylady. Oh! Weep no more today!
We will sing one song for my old Kentucky home
For the old Kentucky home far away.
The song was an anti-slavery song of the Civil War, that became the state song of Kentucky.
Here we have a version from 1939 radio, using the original wording, by the wonderful Judy Garland.
Note (9/5/20): Amid the coronavirus epidemic, the date of the Kentucky Derby was moved to later in the year to the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. Additionally, the Black Lives Matter movement concentrated national thought on our nation’s historically unequal treatment of African Americans originating in slavery. It was questioned whether “My Old Kentucky Home” should be continued as a highlight of the Derby because of its origin as a song of a mistreated slave. Some of the most adverse wording had been changed some years ago as part of that struggle. It was elected to continue with the song with a moment of reflection and instrumental only.
Food and festivals
When you are in Louisville, you are expected to eat …
We’ve seen plenty of people at Derby parties in the homes of friends and families that don’t even watch the race on the TV that is blaring right in front of them. They are there for the fun and good food. We don’t blame them.
But of course, almost everybody is hushed for a magical two minutes as the race is on!
Kentucky and the Louisville area are famous for a number of historic dishes. It can be hard to sort out just which ones are specifically associated with the horse race.
Obvious, of course, is the previously mentioned Derby Pie. But there’s also some that are on the main course menu.
A personal favorite is the Kentucky Hot Brown. Luckily we found good recipes for both of these. Here they are on a downloadable pdf.
The mint julep: It is designated and it sure is fine
The mint julep is the designated beverage (bourbon, sugar, mint, and crushed ice). It is a drink well known in the southern U.S. and said to be part of the “Derby tradition for nearly a century”. Its origin is not exactly known, but it may date even to the late 1800s.
You must make your mint julep in a silver cup just for that purpose. Here is a video that shows you how to do it right.
We don’t care that he’s not in Kentucky; he thinks like he is!
Preakness – Run for the black-eyed Susans
The storied second-leg of the Triple Crown happens two weeks after the Derby. It is the Preakness and is held in Baltimore, Maryland. First run in 1873 at Pimlico Race Course, known as “Old Hilltop”, that is where it was every year since 1909.
The distance is shorter (at 1 3/16 miles) than the Derby, so many horses win the first, but only some the second. Talent for a lesser distance (as well as stamina with this second occasion coming so soon), can favor a different steed.
While not as prominent as the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness is also an important witness to thoroughbred racing in the United States and has a character and story of its own.
- Race: Preakness
- Year started: 1873
- Location: Pimlico Race Course, Baltimore, Maryland
- When held: Two weeks after Kentucky Derby
- Triple Crown: Second leg
nownas: The middle jewel of the Triple Crown
- Also called: “The Run for the Black-eyed Susans”
- Flower: Black-eyed Susan
- Song: Maryland, My Maryland
- Food: Alibi Breakfast (menu varies); Maryland lump crab cakes, Chesapeake oysters
- Beverage: Black-eyed Susan (recipe varies: includes vodka, rum, pineapple juice, orange juice, orange liqueur, and crushed ice)
As much or more than the earlier Derby, this race is associated with spiffy clothes, hats, and colorful ties (for people, that is). Compared with the flamboyance of Kentucky hats, the ones appropriate for this day tend toward wide brims. Partying is definitely part of the racing setting and dressing up for this is what it is all about.
Home of the Woodlawn Vase
The competition provides the most costly trophy in all U.S. sports, valued at about four million dollars: the silver Woodlawn Vase.
It was created by Tiffany in 1860. It was the company’s first made sports trophy, with many illustrious ones to follow.
Quite a story: it was buried during the Civil War because of fear that it would be melted down!
It figured as the prize for various races in the latter 19th century. Interesting enough, it is something which unites the three states: having originated in Kentucky, it was offered there and later at races in New York. It became attached to the Preakness in 1917.
It is permanently kept at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Once a year it gets carried to the Pimlico race track. But you can’t touch it! And neither can the winners, who get pricey replicas. We understand they are okay with that.
The peculiar story of the black-eyed Susans
The Preakness is dignified by its association with black-eyed Susans.
Black-eyed Susans, the state flowers, are featured on many participants’ attire. State colors are yellow, black, and red and show up often.
The first horse across the finish line gets to wear the “Black-eyed Susan blanket”.
Here’s a crazy fact: It doesn’t have black-eyed Susans in it! What?!
These flowers do not bloom until weeks later in the year, so yellow daisies got a black eye to pass for their “cousin” flowers.
Who would have guessed? Not us.
More recently, viking poms, a chrysanthemum that has a darker center more closely resembling the real thing, have been substituted.
Shining stable colors adorn a storied weathervane
There used to be a building at Pimlico called the Old Clubhouse. In 1965 it was called the oldest building in American racing, having been constructed in 1870.
Since 1909, the horse and jockey weathervane at the top was painted in the colors of the winning stable. The cool thing about this was it was done immediately after the race. No kidding. You can see the painter mounting the ladder to get up there.
A horrible fire destroyed the lovely structure in 1966, but the weathervane survived in part. It was reconstructed on a replica cupola which resides in the track’s infield. Such that the racing day tradition continues on.
Hats and fashionable elegance
Hats are almost as important at this race (for the racegoers, not the horses), although less celebrated.
However, coming fashionably dressed with a wide-brimmed hat is what you want to do for this affair.
It’s about being tasteful, not outrageous (at least, for the most part).
The controversy of the Civil War era song
“Maryland, My Maryland” had its origin as a Confederate war song. James Ryder Randall wrote it in 1861. The nine stanzas of the original lyrics reflect that history. In 2018, the state legislature changed its status from “official state song” to “historical state song”.
The version that is sung at the Preakness includes only the third verse.
Maryland, My Maryland lyrics (third verse)
Thou wilt not cower in the dust,James Ryder Randall
Thy beaming sword shall never rust,
Remember Carroll’s sacred trust,
Remember Howard’s warlike thrust,-
And all thy slumberers with the just,
Maryland! My Maryland!
The tune is that of “O Tannenbaum”.
At the race course, for the special occasion, the U.S. Naval Academy Glee Club sings it.
Without all those discarded stanzas to deal with, it is pretty short. But nicely done.
You are in Maryland: Cuisine is
seafood crab cakes
You may like Chesapeake oysters or rockfish fillets, but what you must have are Maryland lump crab cakes. If you cannot be on site for the real deal, here is a suggestion of a fine recipe that you can make easily at home.
We always think about dessert. It is our favorite meal. You can get, while in Baltimore, the touted Berger Cookie. We cannot resist a dollop of chocolate on any cookie.
It’s party time at the Alibi Breakfast a couple of mornings before the big race. Since the 1930’s the horse trainers have traditionally gotten together to give excuses as to why they ‘ain’t gonna win.
Besides tall tales and camaraderie, it’s grown into a media event. You can get tickets and listen in on the brouhaha.
The favored beverage of the Preakness
The Black-eyed Susan is the drink that is associated with the race. It did not start years ago as a traditional beverage, but kind of grew up out of every person’s casual favorite.
It does still get made in various forms. It has always been an alcoholic cocktail with orange juice.
Here, make your own.
Belmont Stakes – Run for the carnations
Wait! Now you say, we know there is a third leg of this series: the Belmont Stakes. Three weeks later it takes place. By now we are in June. It’s been grueling already.
It is the longest, at 1 1/2 miles (or 12 furlongs). The horses are tired by now, if they have been in all three episodes, so close together without much rest in-between. And with the greater distance in the last of three, it is quite an achievement to finish, let alone place or come in at the top. Gives rise to the other nickname it goes by: “Test of the Champion”.
Note: Many of these horses will never be asked to run this long distance again, because there are few races this long and few horses with the stamina to make it possible.
Speaking of stamina leads to remembering Secretariat. In top lists, he vies for the highest with Man o’ War.
Secretariat is alone. He is moving like a tremendous machine! … He’s 25 lengths in front!Chick Anderson, track announcer
Belmont Stakes facts
- Race: Belmont Stakes
- Year started: 1867
- Location: Belmont Park, Elmont (Long Island), New York
- When held: Three weeks after the Preakness
- Triple Crown: Third leg
nownas: “Test of the Champion”
- Also called: “The Run for the Carnations”
- Flower: White carnation
- Song: Theme from “New York, New York”
- Food: New York City style pizza
- Beverage: Belmont Jewel (replaced in 1998 by Belmont Breeze?)
The very special trophy
It is beautiful. Also very dear and special. The Belmont trophy that is awarded to the winner has quite a tradition behind it.
Tiffany crafted the intricate silver covered bowl. The horse at the top is the third Stakes holder, Fenian (1869).
Underneath are equine representations of the three historical thoroughbred Foundation Sires.
After Fenian’s victory, the horse’s owner, August Belmont, kept the trophy for some years. Then the family donated it back in 1926 to be presented to each winner.
It is a perpetual trophy, returned every year.
Flower – carnation, the beauty of simple white and green
What flower is associated with the Belmont? Hum, this one we had to think about just a bit: the white carnation. It is the “Run for the Carnations”, the white carnations.
How the white carnation came to be the official flower is not clear. It is commonly accepted that the flower symbolizes luck and also love. So maybe that’s the connection.
Even though we don’t think of the carnation as an especially glamorous bloom, in the setting of the honorary winner’s blanket, it looks really good.
The green backing shows behind the slightly separated blossoms, making the entire appearance very refined.
Say, remember it’s hot on the East Coast in early June! Not the typical season for these delicate floral arrangements. The carnations are imported.
Like the similarly exalted winning drapes of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, this one is made laboriously and carefully, taking more than a day to complete.
Hats and a simpler elegance
Hats are a hallmark of the Kentucky Derby. They are also celebrated at both the Preakness (as we’ve
Maybe because of the heat of the early summer, you will see some more fascinators and smaller designs compared with the large flamboyance of the earlier races.
Similarly, people dress more casually in general, although extremely casual attire (like shorts) are a no-no.
However, this is New York! Recall it is the Fashion Capital of the World. It would be embarrassing to dress down too much. So we do see some appropriate elegance in dress, as well.
On the race going
Songs of New York
Belmont theme song: “Theme from New York, New York”. They keep changing it, so, literally, stay tuned. When you hear Frank Sinatra you may get confused, thinking you are at a New Year’s Party at Times Square. Especially if you’ve had a Belmont Jewel or two, already (see below).
Sinatra sings “Theme from New York, New York”, and lyrics
There is no special connection between this song and the Stakes race or Belmont race course that we can find.
Except, of course, New York.
Well, that’s good enough for us.
Start spreadin’ the news, I’m leavin’ todayFred Ebb & John Kander, songwriters
I want to be a part of it
New York, New York
These vagabond shoes, are longing to stray
Right through the very heart of it
New York, New York
I want to wake up, in a city that doesn’t sleep
And find I’m king of the hill
Top of the heap
These little town blues
Are melting away
I’ll make a brand new start of it
In old New York
If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere
It’s up to you, New York, New York
New York, New York
… (again) …
For years it was “Sidewalks of New York”. Apparently, it was decided in 1997 to find a younger-feeling theme. Oh, well. (Probably they were right. However, some miss it a lot.)
Then, in the middle of the change, they changed it again. In 2010, “Empire State of Mind” (by Jay-Z) played! Just for the one year, thank goodness. (Probably too modern for this venue, would think.) We had not thought about it before: there are a lot of great New York songs!
Food – Casual New Yorker’s delights
We were aghast to learn that there is no particular traditional food associated with the Belmont Stakes! What??! What are we going to eat?
It’s ok. Calm down. After a sec, we realized what is characteristic for this event is … all that New York has to offer! No, not formal evening dinners. Casual picnic and ballpark food are just right.
It’s your pick:
Favorite NYC Treats
- New York City style pizza
- Sausage with peppers
- NYC hot dogs
- Soft pretzels
Drink up the Belmont Jewel, or the Belmont Breeze, or maybe the White Carnation cocktail
Official drink? This keeps getting changed. Boy, we were confused, so we checked on this three times. Now we’ve got it straight. For now.
This is the official drink of the Belmont Stakes. Yay! It has reigned since 2012. It is definitely tasty. That is the point: people gobble this up at the race track.
- bourbon whiskey
- pomegranate juice
- maraschino cherry or lemon twist (garnish)
The Belmont Breeze used to be the official drink. We are told it was axed because it was too complicated to make quickly for a crowd. Also, it was considered a bit old-fashioned.
- bourbon whiskey
- dry sherry
- lemon juice
- orange juice
- cranberry juice
- mint or orange zest (garnish)
We think the Breeze is the classiest of the three. Too bad it is not the current favorite, but that is understandable since the Belmont crew has to plan for 90,000 people!
But you can take your time when you have just a few to plan for. Here is a good recipe and story about the original Breeze.
White Carnation cocktail
The White Carnation, a cocktail, was officially the one to get for years up to 1998.
- peach schnapps
- orange juice
- soda water
- splash of cream
- orange (garnish)
This is our least favorite of the three. But don’t get us wrong: we wouldn’t refuse it!
It’s just a bit creamy for our tastes, is all. If you are expecting an orange cream soda, this is the one for you!
Go make it. Here is a the recipe.
Trivia Q & A
Which Triple Crown winner has a misspelled name?
American Pharaoh. His owner mistakenly registered him as “Pharoah”. When the horse won the Triple Crown, the Jockey Club also allowed the correctly spelled version of the name.
What thoroughbred race horse, felt to be the best in the world, did not win the Triple Crown?
Man o’ War.
Man o’ War was not entered in the Kentucky Derby (1920) because his owner, Samuel Riddle, felt young horses (three-year-olds) should not run such long distances (10 furlongs) so early in the season.
Later that year, after winning the Preakness and setting a World Record in the Belmont, Man O’War beat Sir Barton, the 1919 (and first) Triple Crown champion.
What very famous thoroughbred race horse was known as “Big Red”?
Both Man o’ War and Secretariat were called by that nickname in their day!
Before you go
Please let us know if you enjoyed this post. We know not everyone is a horse or racing lover. Most people like other sports. As we have tried to express, these racing cards have a lot of festival goings on for other family and friends, or visitors to the regions to enjoy. They are pretty terrific and inclusive affairs. Enjoy!
Love animals? Go look at another post: It’s about bison and bear, oh, and birds in American patriotic lore.