Kentucky Derby Americana - celebrities at the Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby is deeply woven into the fabric of Americana. This iconic racing event goes beyond horse racing and touches many facets of history, culture and leisure, and this series examines some of these ties. This week’s Kentucky Derby Americana feature focuses on celebrities.

In 1877, actress Helena Modjeska attended the third Kentucky Derby and helped begin the trend of celebrity presence. Since then, swarms of actors, musicians, athletes, politicians, and entrepreneurs have not only attended but participated in The Run for the Roses. In 2007, Churchill Downs introduced the Derby Red Carpet, and each year NBC broadcasts arrivals.

Sports personalities who have come in recent years include NBA superstar Michael Jordan and NFL coach Bill Belichick, who has won eight Super Bowls. His quarterback, Tom Brady, who has been to several Derbies, brought a crew with him in 2019. Last year, Broncos linebacker Von Miller and retired racecar driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. helped cover the event with NBC's team, and professional wrestler Titus O’Neil and lacrosse player Paul Rabil attended their first Derby. Former Olympic figure skaters Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinksi are regulars.

Actors who have attended America’s biggest horse race include David Alan Grier, Star Jones, Steve Harvey, Anthony Anderson, Bryan Cranston, and Johnny Knoxville.

Musical acts have been involved since 2009, singing the national anthem:

  • 2019 Jennifer Nettles
  • 2018 Pentatonix
  • 2017 Harry Connick, Jr.
  • 2016 Lady Antebellum
  • 2015 Josh Groban
  • 2014 Jo Dee Messina
  • 2013 Martina McBride
  • 2012 Mary J. Blige
  • 2011 Jordin Sparks
  • 2010 Rascal Flatts
  • 2009 Lee Ann Rimes

Other musicians who have been at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May include Mike Mills of R.E.M., country music star Travis Tritt, The Voice winner Jordan Smith, Joey Fatone from NSYNC and Dancing with the Stars, and singer/songwriter Brandon Jenner.

Since 2012, Churchill Downs has invited a luminary to give the traditional “Riders Up” call, signaling the jockeys to mount their horses, and the moment is broadcast live on NBC:

  • 2019 Baker Mayfield, quarterback of the Cleveland Browns
  • 2018 Laila Ali, television personality and former boxer
  • 2017 actor Jeff Bridges
  • 2016 Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints coach
  • 2015 Teddy Bridgewater, NFL and former University of Louisville quarterback
  • 2014 Julius Irving, aka “Dr. J,” retired NBA star
  • 2013 Charlie Strong, University of Louisville football coach 
  • 2012 John Calipari, University of Kentucky basketball coach

Tune in to NBC on May 2 to see which celebrities will walk the 2020 red carpet and be among the over 150,000 people witnessing the most exciting two minutes in sports.

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Below: Actress Helena Modjeska (Melecjusz Dutkiewicz/Public Domain/Bilioteka Narodowa/Wikimedia Commons)

Actress Helena Modjeska (Melecjusz Dutkiewicz/Public Domain/Bilioteka Narodowa/Wikimedia Commons)