SBJ takes a backward glance at the history, artwork and logo designs of the famous Run For The Roses.
I’m not a diehard horseracing fan, but on the first Saturday in May I always find myself drawn to the drama and spectacle that unfolds in the Bluegrass State. Like its Memorial Day counterpart in Indianapolis, the Kentucky Derby is an elite sporting event that captures the national attention like few others.
Maybe it’s the promise of knowing that the winning three-year-old becomes the focus of the sports universe for the next 30 days flirting with equine immortality in a chase for the elusive Triple Crown. But whatever the reason, I challenge you to maintain a normal heart rate when the leaders pound their way through the last turn to those historic words from track announcer Dave Johnson “…and down the stretch they come!” It’s a snorting, spit-flying mass of majestic beasts crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in a climactic push to the finish line. Captivating stuff for sure.
But with the Derby, and horse racing in general under the microscope lately because of doping controversies and an unusually high rate of horse deaths–especially in California–Sports Brand Jury thinks a look at the history of Kentucky Derby event artwork and logos would be a nice relief leading up to the 145th annual race.
A Short History
The Kentucky Derby is the longest running sporting event in the United States, with the initial race held in 1875. 2019 will mark the 145th consecutive year for the “greatest two minutes in sports” which incredibly persevered through both world wars. It was christened “Churchill Downs” in 1883 in honor of the two generous brothers who gifted the site to their nephew Meriwether Lewis Clark (yes, the grandson of that explorer William Clark, of Lewis and Clark fame).
Notably (for our SBJ court case logo review), the elegant architectural twin spires were added to the landmark grandstand for the 1885 event. In 1904, the red rose became the official flower of the Derby and two decades later, the phrase “Run for the Roses®” was coined by a New York sportswriter. In 1931, the date for the Derby was permanently set for the first Saturday in May, where it has been the official kick-off race in the hallowed Triple Crown ever since. (For the non-horse racing savvy, the Triple Crown includes The Kentucky Derby, The Preakness Stakes, and The Belmont Stakes). Amazingly, there have been only 13 horses to win the coveted crown in the history of the series, with the two most recent achievements coming in 2015 (American Pharoah) and 2018 (Justify). Each year since 1932, the winning Derby horse has been adorned with an official garland, which is fashioned with more than 400 red roses and has become a key branding element of the event.
Now that we’ve established the history as a basis for the event branding, let’s look at a few examples of the early Kentucky Derby artwork and logos. After some exhaustive research (meaning it was after midnight) it became apparent that early official logos for the event are difficult to find. The popularity of event logos being a relatively recent branding tradition, the most visible artwork surrounding the Derby seems to be the ticket designs. This sampling from a recent auction lot shows several vintage designs from the 1930s and 1940s.
The consistent elements on most of these tickets seem to be the highlighting of the words “Derby Day” and the use of a period-style Churchill Downs logo that would actually make an awesome throwback t-shirt.
More recent examples of ticket art (from 1969 and 1973) feature roses in creative designs that are almost kitschy-cool when viewed nearly half a century later and a 1976 bicentennial version that includes stars and bars wave artwork that screams “seventies design.”
The Numbers Game
Surprisingly, I could find very little artwork that was used to commemorate the 100th running of the event in 1974. Aside from a little winged-horse pin and some interesting custom bourbon packages, it appears that their event-specific logos only started making appearances two decades later at the 120th running. That year (1994), the logo art displayed a definite Leroy Neiman-esque design quality to it.
But a definite trend started for the 125thanniversary, which kicked off a steady stream of new and unique Kentucky Derby logos unveiled each year since then. They vary from really cool to just okay, but together they are a compelling visual history of the last two decades of the event.
While the logos released over that time period are somewhat hit and miss, I applaud the brand strategy of creating a new and different logo each year. In our current bland Super Bowl event logo era, the unique Kentucky Derby logos are as welcome as the first aromas of spring Kentucky bluegrass (not that I’ve ever smelled it, but it’s got to be pretty awesome).
Below are all the logos introduced from 2000 to the current 2019 design. The last 14 designs have been created by industry giant SME Branding. Worth noting, the 135th and 140th logo designs conform more to the official generic Kentucky Derby event logo (shown below the others) which appears to be used to represent the Derby itself as opposed to any specific year’s event.
The Odds-On Favorites
Remembering that this is a courtroom, SBJ has singled out the top three Derby event logo designs of all time. Win, place, and show to be exact.
The design garland of roses goes to the 130th anniversary logo, which successfully combines the three main elements of the event: a horse (actually a horse and jockey), a rose, and the twin spires. It even throws in a horseshoe for good measure, somehow still avoiding a cluttered final product. I am also drawn to the muted color palette which gives it a more timeless appearance. A win-win-win solution.
Coming up short by a nose (mostly due to the lack of a horse or jockey element) is the 141st event logo. This design highlights the twin spires and includes a sort of searchlight effect in the arched background shape. The colors hint at mint green tones (a nod to the famous Derby Mint Julep drink?) and it includes the small rose and horseshoe symbol borrowed from the generic logo.
Trailing in third and fading a bit down the stretch is last year’s logo – unveiled for the 144th running. Something about the shield shape and the clever use of the white space between the 1, 4 and 4 design elements to place the twin spires works nicely. But like its runner-up companion, it also falls a little short without a horse image.
Overall, it’s gratifying to see the diverse branding history of this truly American spectacle, and it gets me excited to think about what will come in the future, especially for the momentous 150th running.
It’s almost time for horses and riders to head from the paddock to the starting gates. Which three-year-old will start its Triple Crown quest at this equine shrine? It should take just about two minutes to find out.
Sports Brand Jury welcomes your opinions, comments, and suggestions for future cases. If we use your ideas for a future post, we’ll send you some SBJ swag as a thank you.