Official Song

Although there is no definitive history on the playing of the Stephen Foster ballad as a Derby Day tradition it is believed to have had its origin in 1921 for the 47th running of the classic.

The Courier-Journal in their May 8, 1921 edition reported, “To the strains of “My Old Kentucky Home” Kentuckians gave vent their delight. For Kentucky triumphed in the Derby.” The story refers to the popular victory of the Kentucky-owned and bred Behave Yourself.

The actual year the song was played as the horses were led onto the track is also unclear. A 1929 news account written by the legendary Damon Runyon reported that the song was played periodically throughout Derby Day. A report by the former Philadelphia Public Ledger provides evidence that 1930 may have been the first year the song was played as the horses were led to the post parade – “When the horses began to leave the paddock and the song ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ was coming from the radio, the cheering started.”

Since 1936, with only a few exceptions, the song has been performed by the University of Louisville Marching Band.

The composer of the song, Stephen Foster, died in New York’s Bowery district Jan. 10, 1864 at the age of 38.

To honor the composer, Churchill Downs created the Stephen Foster Handicap in 1982. The race for three-year-olds and up at 1 1/8 miles, has grown in popularity and now serves as a Grade II event with a purse of $750,000, the richest stakes at the Downs outside of the Derby.

Some other melodies Foster composed include “Beautiful Dreamer,” “Swanee River” and “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.” For Kentuckians and the countless race fans who have taken in the Derby in person or via radio or television, Foster will best be remembered for his moving ballad “My Old Kentucky Home.”

MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME

By Stephen Foster

The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,

Tis summer, the people are gay;

The corn-top’s ripe and the meadow’s in the bloom

While the birds make music all the day.

The young folks roll on the little cabin floor

All merry, all happy and bright;

By’n by hard times comes a knocking at the door

Then my old Kentucky home, Good-night!

Weep no more my lady. Oh! Weep no more today!

We will sing one song for my old Kentucky home

For the old Kentucky home, far away.

Listen to the Song