Endurance Defined: The Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Hot Brown

“Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.”

~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
(from “A Psalm of Life”)

Thoroughbred horse racing can be more than a spectator sport — it can be inspiration for living a high-spirited life.  And the kitchen is more than just a place to make food — it can be a laboratory for engaging with the divine, resulting in a comforting labor of love.

Longfellow gives us the words to see endurance in a poetic way. Unless I’m watching a glorious French cheese sauce emulsify on the stove, I would be hard pressed to find anything more visually poetic than the relaxed thoroughbred’s beautiful body in full stride.  A horse race is a great opportunity to celebrate the magnificence of both.  And the Kentucky Derby is a perfectly timed race to see the thoroughbred’s beautiful power.  A thoroughbred develops, just like a cheese sauce, with care and time. Endurance is the key.

A great test of the thoroughbred’s endurance, the Triple Crown series of thoroughbred racing begins each year with the coveted Kentucky Derby.  Run at 1 1/4 miles (10 furlongs), the Derby is a great test of endurance for each of its entrants.  Few will have run this far before they step on to the track at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky on May 6.

The Preakness, run two weeks later in Baltimore, is 1 3/16 miles (9 ½ furlongs) and, finally, the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, New York, at 1 ½ miles (12 furlongs), completes the endurance series for three-year-olds.

Secretariat, widely regarded as the greatest race horse in history, holds the record for the fastest Kentucky Derby time of 1:59 2/5, established in 1973 in a 2 ½-length win over Sham. By the time he ran the Belmont five weeks later, he had improved so much through the process of the Triple Crown endurance test, he won by 31 lengths.

As a culture, we don’t usually brag about things we can do in less than two minutes time — unless it involves holding one’s breath under water, downing epic sized containers of adult beverages or ingesting dozens of hot dogs for charity.

Not quite high-spirited.

In 1926, however, the Brown Hotel in Louisville created the open-faced, carved turkey sandwich that still thrives today.  If time is taken to prepare the ingredients in advance, the sandwich can be beautifully plated and served hot in the same two minutes time it takes the magnificent thoroughbred to run for the roses.

So comforting, it has inspired many versions throughout the years, but the Kentucky Hot Brown is still served today in its original form at the hotel.  In Season 2 of Throwdown with Bobby Flay, the chefs of the Brown Hotel won their competition with the famous dish, inspiring the celebrity chef and thoroughbred owner to carry it as a year-round menu item at his Manhattan restaurant, Bar Americain.


The hearty comfort food was designed to be easily held for service, ensuring the delivery of a timely, hot, fresh and delicious meal, irrespective of when an unexpected guest enduring the long journey might arrive.

The cheese sauce, a classic French take on the Béchamel, is elevated to a Mornay with gruyere and parmesan cheeses that have typically been aged, not unlike Derby runners, for three years.  Eaten with a knife and fork, this quintessential southern comfort food begins with a slice of hearty white bread, piled high with carved turkey breast, garden tomato slices, smothered in creamy cheese sauce, and then topped with smoky bacon.

It’s a high-spirited meal that, when savored and enjoyed, can transport the consumer to other-worldly places. Just like the Kentucky Derby.

Cindy Trejo
Cindy Trejo is a Private Chef based in Nebraska and an honor graduate of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. She trained in the NYC restaurants of noted celebrity chef and thoroughbred horse owner, Bobby Flay. A native Californian and avid thoroughbred fan, Cindy spent early mornings at Santa Anita Park’s Clockers Corner learning about racing before heading off to attend culinary school classes.
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