The Kentucky Derby — the gleaming gem of the Triple Crown — is a merry-go-round of money, bourbon, horse flesh and more money. It’s a festival of speed, a party of the wildest order and a celebration of Southern charm that has come to embody American sports. The tradition continues Saturday when the country’s 20 best 3-year-old thoroughbreds take part in the 138th running of the storied race at Churchill Downs in Louisville.

Although only one horse will be draped in the famous blanket of roses, just starting the race is considered an equine achievement, according to Susan Nusser. In her new book, “Kentucky Derby Dreams,” she describes the long odds each new crop of foals must endure to become racehorses or, even less likely, Derby contenders.

Her ambitious, fly-on-the-stall-wall account centers on the multi-million-dollar business of Taylor Made, a thoroughbred breeding operation outside Lexington, Ky. Nusser describes how the Taylor Made foals of 2009 are raised as runway models, shined and sheened until their coats glisten like mink. As yearlings, they are paraded in front of wealthy owners who examine their conformation and their walking gait. Some young thoroughbreds go for more than $1 million apiece at the Fasig-Tipton auction in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. — a price tag based on potential alone. From the sales ring, the animals begin their lives as racehorses. Maybe — and it’s a big maybe — they are entered into the Derby, the thoroughbred industry’s culminating effort, where high hopes are either fulfilled or shattered and gambled fortunes are won or lost.

As historian James C. Nicholson recounts in “The Kentucky Derby,” racing enthusiasts have gathered in Louisville since 1875 to sip frosty mint juleps from silver cups and watch the fastest young thoroughbreds run. Nicholson’s comprehensive history of the Derby begins with the first champion, a chestnut colt named Aristides. The narrative progresses through Derby history to Regret in 1915 (the first winning filly) to Gallant Fox in 1930 and Omaha in 1935 (the first father-and-son Triple Crown champions) to Citation in 1948 and Secretariat in 1973 (two remarkable hall of famers) and on to Barbaro in 2006 and Mine That Bird in 2009.

Through scrupulous research, Nicholson clearly describes how the Derby has transformed from “a pipsqueak Dixie picnic,” in the words of Time magazine, to a major U.S. sporting event of the same caliber as the Masters tournament and the Indianapolis 500.

’The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America's Premier Sporting Event’ by James C. Nicholson (The University Press of Kentucky)

The Derby traces its roots to Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., the builder of the racetrack that became Churchill Downs and grandson of explorer William Clark. In the 1870s, Nicholson explains, Kentucky was still recovering from the Civil War, which had split many in the state along party lines. Although the commonwealth had remained officially in the Union, many Kentuckians had volunteered to fight for the Confederacy. The state’s adopted Southern heritage quickly became part of the Derby’s lore.

In an 1874 New York Times report that Nicholson uncovered, the paper describes Kentucky as “a land which produces more beautiful women, unrivaled horses, fine whisky, and blue grass than any other section of the universe.” But the state had its sinister facets, too, including some denizens who “think it no harm to kill a man or two yearly to keep their senses of honor keen and their weapons bright.”

The Derby rose in prominence with the advent of radio broadcasts and pari-mutuel betting, in which patrons gamble for a cut of the “handle” — the total amount wagered. One man who helped popularize the Derby was Matt Winn, general manager of Churchill Downs in the early 1900s. “Winn served as a living, breathing advertisement for Kentucky as a place where colonels sip juleps and smoke cigars on verandas,” Nicholson writes. With his help, the Derby attracted the likes of the Whitneys and the Vanderbilts. The modern monied generation of owners is dominated by the Dubai ruling family, namely Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum. Collectively, Nicholson writes, the Maktoum clan has spent more than $1 billion on horses — and has yet to win a coveted Derby trophy.

Today the Derby is Kentucky’s premier social event. Covering the action on assignment for Scanlan’s Monthly, the gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson walked away from the Derby somewhat disgusted by “the whiskey gentry” in attendance, mainly the so-called “colonels [who] get strutting drunk and slap a lot of backs and generally make [themselves] obvious.” (Quick trivia question: What do Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Buffett, KFC founder Harland Sanders — and even Thompson himself — have in common? All were given the honorary title of Kentucky colonel.) During the 1970s, Nicholson writes, the exuberant infield party bordered on a bacchanalia. A Sports Illustrated report described the scene as a liquor-soaked orgy of “hippies, heads, straights, rednecks, coeds, jocks, teeny boppers and weirdoes.”

Nicholson’s book will appeal to anyone interested in learning about Kentucky and its Derby. Nusser’s book, however, is not for the uninitiated. Those who don’t know colic from colostrum or pinhookers from pasterns may want to skip it. (A better overview of the heady world of thoroughbred sales can be found in “The Home Run Horse,” by Daily Racing Form correspondent Glenye Cain.)

Early in “Kentucky Derby Dreams,” Taylor Made farm owner Frank Taylor predicts that a colt known as Collect Call ’09 will be a Derby contender. Collect Call ’09 was later sold for $300,000 at auction. He is of Derby-racing age this year but nowhere to be found on the entries list. Why? Because he’s only won $5,368. When it comes to thoroughbreds, there is no such thing as a sure bet.

T. Rees Shapiro is a Washington Post obituary writer.


The Making of Thoroughbred Champions

By Susan Nusser

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s. 266 pp. $25.99


How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event

By James C. Nicholson

Univ. Press of Kentucky. 274 pp. $24.95