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How are Secretariat, Martha Stewart and Jack Harlow connected? The Kentucky Derby, the most unique sporting event in the US | CNN



How are Secretariat, Martha Stewart and Jack Harlow connected? The Kentucky Derby, the most unique sporting event in the US | CNN


Here are three names you rarely see together in a sentence: War Admiral, Secretariat and Martha Stewart. The first two were well-known racehorses in their day, while Stewart is a world-renowned retail businesswoman.

The Kentucky Derby is what unites them. War Admiral and Secretariat won it and Stewart is the grand marshal of this year’s race.

You see the Derby occupies a unique space in the American fabric. Even as horse racing has mostly disappeared from mainstream America, the Derby manages to be a major sports and cultural event.

Last year, 15 million people watched NBC’s Kentucky Derby broadcast. Only four non-football programs had more than 15 million viewers in 2023. One of those was broadcast across multiple channels (the State of the Union) and another was the show after the Super Bowl.

Closer to 17 million watch the race itself, which has been dubbed “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” And at a time when most telecasts have seen a downward trend in viewership, the Derby has maintained its own.

The same cannot be said for other horse races. While the Derby is just one part of American horse racing’s Triple Crown, the other two legs – the Preakness and Belmont Stakes – pulled in 5 million and 4 million viewers in 2023. These didn’t differ significantly from 2022.

The success of the Derby and lack of attention for other races isn’t too surprising looking at the polling data. Less than 1% of Americans say horse racing is their favorite sport to watch. Five percent said it was in 1937, which then made it the fourth-most popular sport in America behind baseball, football and basketball (how tastes have changed).

More than a third (35%) of those who watched a horse race in the last year said they watched only one, according to a 2023 Ipsos poll. No other sport comes close to the share of viewers who claimed they watched just one game or event.

High viewership is not the only thing that makes the Derby standout. About 150,000 people attended the race last year. That’s more than the Super Bowl.

But let’s put aside the actual sporting event: a big reason the Derby has held on in the American psyche is that it’s more than a race. Louisville, where the race takes place, has made a two-week spectacle of it all with its Kentucky Derby Festival. This two-week celebration in the lead-up to the race is the largest annual event in the state.

The whole experience even has a drink associated with it: the mint julep. You can’t say that about the Super Bowl. Over 100,000 are sold annually at the Derby. Nationwide, many Americans get a julep. In fact, during the month of May, five times as many people search for mint julep on Google than the average during the year.

Hats are some of the nigh-mandatory accoutrements of attending horse races and the Derby in particular.

Beyond the drinks, there is also the fashion. It’s a very rare sight to see a woman in a hat these days, but upwards of 90% of women at the Derby don one. These hats go for hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

Many of the people wearing a cap or making a fashion statement will be celebrities like the aforementioned Martha Stewart. She’s not going to be the only well-known personality around Louisville. Folks like Kid Rock, Josh Groban and Jack Harlow will be attending as well.

While we don’t have an exact number for how many celebrities there will be, here’s a number associated with them: nearly $20 million. Friday’s Barnstable Brown Gala – one of many parties held during the lead up to the Derby – has raised that much for charity since debuting 35 years ago.

Part of the reason to watch the Derby broadcast is to see the celebrities and pomp and circumstance. Remember the actual race is a mere two minutes, even as NBC puts on a five-hour telecast this year a la the Super Bowl.

Josh Groban poses at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 2, 2015.
Jack Harlow at the 148th Kentucky Derby on May 7, 2022.

Now, the one thing you’ll note that I haven’t mentioned in the Derby’s appeal is betting. At least hundreds of millions of dollars were bet last year on the Derby.

What’s interesting about that number is that it’s a mere pittance of the amount bet on sports overall – north of a $100 billion – in the United States last year. I say interestingly because, traditionally, one of the biggest appeals for horse racing compared to other sports events was that you could legally gamble on it when you couldn’t do so on other sports.

That competitive advantage is gone from horse racing today, as sports gambling is legal in most of the United States. Yet the Derby endures.

It has done so for almost 150 years, and there is no sign, as of yet, that the Derby won’t be around for another 150.

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