Destination: Derby

My friend Dave was at his niece’s piano recital a couple of weeks ago and texted me that she was playing My Old Kentucky Home. Pretty standard fare for a middle school music performance, right? But Dave and I have heard that song, and maybe sang a line or two, on several first Saturdays in May, in Churchill Downs in Louisville,  as a parade of horses walks from the paddock to take their places in the rich history of the Kentucky Derby. A few of us are going again this weekend. That song was a sign. It’s going to be a good trip.

About eight or nine years ago, my longstanding regular poker game gained a new member, someone who was deeply involved in horse racing. Racing was a natural add-on for a group of recreational gamblers and several of us quickly became fans. The guy who introduced us to the sport takes an analytical approach, with a detailed study of bloodlines, Beyer numbers, past performances and weather conditions, devoting as much time to it as you would to a part-time job, and it’s paid him (and occasionally us) pretty well. Another guy in the group hates gray horses and always bets on royal names, like Princess May or King of Diamonds. The rest of us fall somewhere in the middle, mixing analysis with back-of-the-neck hunches—for example, if you served on the U.S.S. Midway, which made a stop at Midway Island while you were on it, you have to include a horse named Battle of Midway in your exotic bet, even though it’s a 30-1 shot. And it pays off for you. Interpret the signs.

You can hang out in the infield for $70 to $100, or sit in the grandstand for the two-day Oaks and Derby races, for $300-$400, or if you’re really splurging, you can get box seats for a couple thousand. One of these days, man. When we hit it big.

It just became a natural outgrowth of our interest that we would want to go to the Derby. The Derby is one of those things, like the Indy 500 or the Super Bowl, that extends beyond fandom and becomes an experience. I highly recommend going at least once, even if you’re not an especially big horse racing fan. If you’re interested, you can start planning next year’s trip here. About the only drawback is, in order to complete the experience,  you must drink a mint julep, and they are absolutely horrible. I’ve been told that under the right circumstances they can be delicious, but mass-produced in drink tents and vended from trays, they just taste like toothpaste-flavored cough syrup with a lot of ice. But you need to drink at least one, no getting around it. The day before the Derby is the Kentucky Oaks, and its signature drink, the Lily, is way better. Vodka, lemon juice, cranberry juice, simple syrup and triple sec, topped with three blackberries. Drink a julep. Wash the taste out with a Lily.

The Derby is a big-time event, with easily 150,000 people in the stands and the infield, but it’s an event without meanness, if that makes sense. Put half that number in a football stadium, or a quarter of that number at a concert, and watch the fights break out, and the disorderly drunks being dragged to the exits by harried security staff. But while there is a certain amount of overindulgence at the Derby, this will be my fourth trip and I have yet to see any excesses that required the serious attention of law enforcement.

Beautiful ladies, breathtaking hats. And Chuck. Hi, Chuck.

Genteel. That’s the word I’m looking for. Spectacular women wearing dresses and hats that are sometimes a year in the planning. Men in pink suits, purple suits, dollar bill suits, suits festooned with little horses and horseshoes. The group of four or five Kentucky gentlemen we shared some bleacher space with last year, decked out in straw boaters and seersucker suits, each of which had enough pockets to account for a seemingly endless supply of pint bottles of Old Forester. Really, the bottles just kept coming out, like a magic trick. On my first trip, in 2014, Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker was just hanging out, passing out $100 bills to everyone who crossed his path until it became a crowd-control situation. But again, no violence. No arrests. Just a good time.

Along with My Old Kentucky Home, someone always sings the National Anthem as part of the program. Two years ago, Lady Antebellum sang it through a drenching cloudburst that sent half the crowd running for cover while the rest of us braved the downpour, stuck it out and sang along, with a sense of camaraderie that bound a group of strangers together in a shared experience. When the rain cowards came back out, the rest of use wore our soggy clothes like a badge of honor. There was some booing. Good-natured and genteel booing, but still.

We’re gearing up for this year’s festivities. Our analytical friend has provided us with links to blogs and race results, giving us the opportunity to follow each of the contenders on the road to Churchill Downs. Justify looks strong, mopping up at Santa Anita, shaping up as a possible favorite, even though a 3-year-old horse just starting its racing career hasn’t won a Derby since 1882. And as of press time, there are no royal horses on the leaderboard to bet on, and no gray horses to avoid, but we may do a bet based on the first Kentucky license plate we see on the drive, if we can correctly interpret the sign.  There are a lot of strong entries in this year’s Derby, with no clear front-runners, so this is shaping up to be one of the better races in recent years. No sure things. Except, of course, for the hats, and the outfits, and the sweet-natured gentility. Any cash we walk away with is just the blackberries on the Lily. It’s going to be a good trip.

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