From the Almanac: Mint Juleps, Faulkner & Churchill Downs Trivia
Wildsam Almanac is our new regular dispatch of cultural curiosities, odd corners of history and miscellanea of all sorts. Clay Skipper, author of this Almanac, is a seasoned journalist in the realms of sports and wellness, and beyond.
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1 The Kentucky Derby Name Game
Quasimodo. Shut Up. Wool Sandals. Burgoo King.
These may look like random words. Not the case. These are the names of four of thousands of horses which have competed in the Kentucky Derby in that great race’s 149-year history. (Note that Burgoo King won the 1932 Derby, 22 years before the first Burger King.) Much could be said about this most storied horse race–the hats, the infield, the jockey silks. But thoroughbred names weave both romance and whimsy into Churchill Downs.
When the race runs again this coming Saturday, May 6, the field will include some mighty monikers. Angel of Empire. Sun Thunder. Lord Miles. Verifying.
These are just the latest entries in the annals of Derby nomenclature. Some names match the event’s dignified pomp: American Pharaoh, Empire Maker, War Admiral, and Midnight Bourbon. Others? Well, not so much: Soup and Sandwich, Daddynosebest, I’ll Have Another, Needles, Behave Yourself …
[Delve more deeply into the lore of the Bluegrass State with Wildsam’s Kentucky Bourbon Country field guide.]
Owners often choose names inspired by their horse’s sire (father) and dam (mother). In last year’s field, Charge It was the offspring of I’ll Take Charge and Tapit. Owners aiming for more originality still must follow rules laid out by The Jockey Club, which approves all proposed names. Those guidelines forbid names of more than 18 characters (spaces and punctuation included), names of living persons without written permission, and names considered in poor taste. [How Bodacious Tatas made it through, we cannot know.]
Appropriately, perhaps the greatest name story belongs to arguably the most important horse in Kentucky Derby history. That would be Potoooooooo, born in England in 1773 and pronounced “potatoes.”
Legend has it that the horse’s owner, the fourth Earl of Abingdon, told a stable worker the name, the latter took it very literally: “pot,” then 8 o’s. Apparently as hilarious and ridiculous then as now, the name stuck. Racing from 1776 to 1783, Pot8o’s (as the name was sometimes recorded) won almost all of his races, some as long as four miles, compared to the 1.25-mile track at Churchill Downs. In fact, Pot8o’s was so dominant that his owner was once paid more than half of a race’s purse simply not to race.
But most importantly for horsey posterity, Pot8o’s is the grandson of the Darley Arabian, one of three stallions that all modern thoroughbreds descend from. And the descendents of Pot8o’s are suitably regal. In fact, his genes have produced 116 Derby winners.
For those doing that math at home, that’s about 14.5 winning descendants for every one of his eight o’s.
It’s fitting that the horse known as “Potatoes” holds such a hallowed place in Derby lore–for what is this race if not a wonderful mix of the exalted and the silly? It’s a majestic display of equine athleticism, and one of America’s greatest, messiest parties. As for us, we’ve got our money on Major Dude–a longshot (85-1) with a name that would make Potoooooooo proud.
2 The Mint Julep
The list of ingredients to make a mint julep–the Derby’s signature tipple, mixed and sold about 120,000 times over at Churchill Downs during Derby weekend–are simple: bourbon, shaved ice, sugar, and mint. But its long and storied history means there are many ways to make it. Here is one way, from the vaults of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
Pluck the mint gently from its bed, just as the dew of the evening is about to form on it.
Select the choicer sprigs only, but do not rinse them.
Prepare the simple syrup and measure out a half-tumbler of whiskey.
Pour the whiskey into a well-frosted silver cup.
Throw the other ingredients away, and drink the whiskey.
[Wander down the rabbit holes of Southern culture with Wildsam’s American South.]
3 Kentucky Derby by the Numbers
$179 million... amount of money wagered at Churchill Downs for the 2022 Derby
32,400... approximate number of jumbo shrimp consumed on average
462... number of roses, approximately, in the Garland of Roses placed over the Derby’s winning horse
1:59.40... fastest finish time, achieved by 1973’s Triple Crown Winner Secretariat
80-1... odds on last year’s winner, Rich Strike, the second-longest odds in Derby history
0... number of Kentucky Derby’s postponed because of bad weather
Hot walker: the person who walks a horse until it is cooled off after its morning workout.
Colt: male horse under the age of five (Filly is a female horse under five).
Milliner: someone who designs, manufactures and sells hats for women (a hatter or hatmaker is simply someone who makes and sells hats).
Furlong: one-eighth of a mile, the Churchill Downs track is 10 furlongs.
5 From the Archives
From William Faulkner’s 1955 Sports Illustrated story, “Kentucky:May:Saturday”
Even before we reach the track we can hear horses–the light hard rapid thud of hooves mounting into crescendo and already fading rapidly on. And now in the gray early light we can see them, in couples and groups at canter or hand-gallop under the exercise boys. Then one alone, at once furi-ous and solitary, going full out, breezed, the rider hunched forward, excres-cent and precarious, not of the horse but simply (for the instant) with it,in the conventional posture of speed–and who knows, perhaps the two of them, man and horse both: the animal dreaming, hoping that for that mo-ment at least it looked like Whirlaway or Citation, the boy for that moment at least that he was indistinguishable from Arcaro or Earl Sande, perhaps feeling already across his knees the scented sweep of the victorious garland.
[Explore Faulkner’s literary legacy in Wildsam’s guide to Oxford, Mississippi.]
Billy Kelly with Earl Sande, 1919
6 And a Few Parting Words of Advice…
…as cartoonist Nate Collier once said, “No horse can go as fast as the money you bet on him.”