The story of my Kentucky Derby glass collection isn’t about the great lengths I’ve gone to find each year from 1961 to 2013. It’s about my friends, family, and even old boyfriends who have given me a mint julep cup here and there.
My old college roommate keeps a running list in her iPhone of the glasses I have in case she stumbles across one in her daily life, while my mom calls me at every auction or yard sale to double check.
Each year, more than 120,000 mint juleps are served over the two-day period of the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby, each in a specially made collectible glass. If you’ve ever been to a race at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, you know that your two must-have accessories are a hat and a mint julep in hand.
I started collecting Derby glasses in 2000 when my dad stopped in to The Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., and bought my older sister and I each the 2000 glass. Living in coastal North Carolina at the time, you didn’t just stumble across Derby glasses like you do in the Tri-State. The gift became a prized possession — my encyclopedia reference — as I worked to memorize the list of winners that are printed on each glass since Aristides first won the race in 1875.
Growing up, my family always owned horses, which I envisioned as a Secretariat or Man O’ War (and I rode them like a Ron Turcotte or Johnny Loftus). It fostered my passion for horse racing, my love for the Triple Crown, and my thirst to complete a full set of glasses.
The first glass produced by Churchill Downs was in 1938, but it was used only in limited numbers and was a water glass, instead of a true mint julep glass. Some collectors argue this glass doesn’t belong in the full set. I’ve seen this glass only once sitting in a window of a small shop in downtown Midway, Ky., and of course, it wasn’t for sale.
The longer you search for the earlier years, the harder they are to find — and the more expensive they are. World War II created a severe shortage of materials, including glass, which meant a smaller number of glasses were produced in the early 1940s. Another challenge in completing a set is in 1946 and 1947 only blank undecorated glasses were created making recognizing them especially difficult. But it doesn’t stop you from looking; going through every glass, memorizing the designs, and hoping the next antique store could have just the one.