The Washington Post

Studying the Kentucky Derby: More than a horse race

Good teachers know how to wrap a lesson around almost anything (when they are allowed to). Take the Kentucky Derby, which is running for the 138th time this Saturday. The event offers lessons, among other things, in history, science, statistics, math, culture, economics, health and even fashion.

John Velazquez rides Animal Kingdom to victory during the 137th Kentucky Derby horse race on May 7, 2011. (David J. Phillip/AP)

* The Derby is the oldest continuous sporting event in the United States, and for most of American history, thoroughbred racing was the country’s most popular sport. Held on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, it has been held every year since it was begun on May 17, 1875.

* The Derby brings into the region hundreds of millions of dollars a year, while the horse industry in Kentucky is a $3 billion industry. An economic impact study from a decade ago — the last one conducted — said then that the Derby brought at least $220 million to Louisville, and that is believed to have at least doubled since them, according to the Fiscal Times.

* Studying the scientific basis for how jockeys perform can provide insights into human training, nutrition and health.

The museum offers programs for every grade in a variety of subjects and for Kentucky students, they are aligned to state standards in different subjects.

For example, a program called Horse Tales for PreK-Grade 1 — a storytime session in which students hear a story based on a horserace — helps kids learn that reading is fun while meeting some state standards for reading literature and informational texts as well as speaking and listening.

A program called “Odds in Everyday Life” for grades 4-8 shows how probabilities are used in problem solving, with a discussion of how horse races involve the concept of perimiter and “leads to the random drawing for starting positions,” the website says. This meets a number of state math standards for those grades.

Some social studies standards for grades 4-8 are met through the “Race Through Time” program, which tells the story of thoroughbred racing in American social history from the colonial period through the late 19th century. Elements include horse care in West African kingdoms, origins of the Age of Exploration, American colonization and racing in early America, growth of the African slave trade and the rise of jockeys, impact of the Civil War on Kentucky racing and the origins of the Derby, and African American jockeys in early Kentucky Derbies.

High school social studies standards are met through “Jockeying for Positions,” a program about Kentucky’s horse industry.

Of course fashion is an important element to the Kentucky Derby, where men and women dress up, and Derby hats for women are world famous.

Race fans cheer during one of the races prior to the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in 2011. (JOHN SOMMERS II/REUTERS)

The students designed their accessories for imaginary clients, for a rock star, infield fan, high stakes gambler, millionaire’s row lady and a horse trainer’s wife, Melissa Shepherd, manager of the department’s costume shop, said in a museum news release.

What did the students come up with? An original hat and matching purse for each of their clients. You can see them here.


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Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.


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