They call it the Run for the Roses, or simply The Derby. It is the Kentucky Derby, always run on the first Saturday in May. It is a spectacle unto itself. Yes, there is a horse race, but it is much more. It is s southern celebration of enormous magnitude. It is an opportunity to wear your Saturday best, men and women alike. The hats are incredible, and often reach thousands of dollars in cost. Here was my one and only experience at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby:
May 4, 2008
We finally arrived in Louisville around dinner time on Thursday. Our plane to Chicago from Denver was late due to de-icing, so we literally ran from the B concourse to the C. We were the last 2 on the plane, just as they were calling the standbys. Every inch of overhead space was taken by hat boxes. Even regular people with a passing interest become diehard horse racing fans.
We got to our hotel east of Louisville, had some dinner, and met up with the guy we bought the tickets from. He brought the tickets by, and invited us to his big pre-Derby beer party near the track (with free parking). Anyway, really nice guy and his wife, along with 5 car loads of friends. We decided to take a shuttle bus, which ended up being an old school bus driven by a nice Korean fellow from Boston. Did I mention FREE parking, a big deal here?
We spent Friday just getting familiar with downtown Louisville. During our breakfast downtown at the Marriott, the waitress told us they were selling Derby hats upstairs in a Derby boutique. Off we went just for a look. A few dollars (lots of dollars) later, and Sheri had the neatest/fanciest Derby hat you can imagine, made from a man’s fedora!!
We also looked around the revived downtown area, highlighted by Fourth Street Live, an area with clubs and restaurants. We strolled Muhammad Ali Blvd, and had a bourbon at Maker’s Mark Lounge. Louisville is also home to the famous Louisville Slugger baseball bat company. A big storm was headed our way, so we went back to the hotel. It thundered and showered all afternoon, night, and into Derby Day morning.
But we arrived at Churchill Downs around 11am Derby Day to bright sun, dry track conditions, and a real experience. We saw so many women with fancy hats and outfits. The hats almost overshadowed the Derby itself. How do these women walk around for 10 hours in high heels? The parade of horses paled in comparison to the parade of stylishly dressed ladies. Needless to say, it is a real party atmosphere. Lots of beer, mint juleps, champagne, and wine, along with southern BBQ meats, and lobster sandwiches.
The really hearty partiers sit/stand/pass out in the infield, where admission is $40. We saw a bunch of guys bring a huge old couch into the infield, just so they would have a place to sit!! The local TV stations broadcast live the entire day, both Friday and Saturday. All local businesses run Derby promos of some sort all week long. We met a nice lady on the plane who was going to sit in a luxury box with her boyfriend and his business clients. Seats and boxes are handed down several generations.
As the big moment got closer, most people got to their assigned seats. When the horses walked by the first time, everybody stood on their seats to get a good look. With twenty horses, it was a very large parade. I decided to bet the favorite, Big Brown, and two longshots, just in case. The handle just on the Derby was $26 million at the track, plus another $15 million for the exacta. No wonder the lines at the ATM’s were longer than the beer and food lines.
We were sitting/standing about where Big Brown made his BIG move past the leaders, and on to the stretch run. We fortunately missed the tragic breakdown of the filly down the backstretch during the warm down. It was a sad ending to a really exciting day. But I did manage to cash a winning ticket on Big Brown.
We did not see any big sports or movie stars. But the VIP’s are led to their seats by a guy carrying a sign on a long pole. Everybody wants to know who they are, but nobody seems to know (or care). Everyone is so dressed up, they could all be VIPs! The fashion show is almost better than the horse races. We sang “My Old Kentucky Home” as if we knew the words.
If you ever get the chance, we would recommend going, wear a fancy hat, and enjoy a very friendly and gracious part of the south. The food is not the greatest, but the bourbon is smooth and plentiful. People everywhere are helpful and friendly, even the rednecks. The only down side is that Kentucky seems to have the largest percentage of smokers I have ever seen, outside of North Carolina. Our friend James recommended going to a stud farm to observe the activities. Or??? We ran out of time.