Well, some have the Masters, and others have the Super Bowl but for me, the true bucket list item is the Kentucky Derby.
So, after many years watching the “greatest 2 minutes in the history of sports” on television, and happening to be a third generation Kentucky boy myself, there I was this past Saturday, up close and in person at Churchill Downs for the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby.
What made it even more surreal, was that I was fortunate enough to be there with the Mayor of Louisville — the honorable, Greg Fischer — in his motorcade and on the red carpet, with the the world’s paparazzi in tow. It was an experience any attention-loving Leo would covet.
We arrived on Thursday to an airport abuzz with live ragtime music, pretty “ladies” dressed in clothes of a bygone era handing out bourbon balls, and enormous urns of long stemmed red roses that lined the walkways for yards. Louisville is not shy about their Derby weekend, the prices are jacked up beyond all recognition. “Thurby” –as they call it– is part of the show, so a brief, 5-minute cab ride can set you back $25.00, with a whiskey-throated, chuckling driver visiting from Ohio, taking your money with guiltless glee.
Swiftly, bourbon becomes the perfect solution to part with pain.
Kentucky folk love their bourbon, and supply about 95% percent of the world. The problem is the best labels cannot leave the state. Rather than go to the Kentucky Oaks on Friday-the locals favorite day of racing– we opted to do a little bourbon tasting and found some extremely hard-to-find labels. Now, we had our final challenge…smuggling them home!
After a welcome gala at the Mayor’s building, a gorgeous turn of the century colonial, followed by the Vanity Fair party where we spotted Lindsey Vonn and Bob Baffert, it was time for the Saturday spectacle.
And, spectacle it truly was. A mostly crisp and sunny morning, around 72 degrees, with one hundred and sixty thousand people wearing everything from a double-breasted suit covered in Tito’s Vodka logos, to almost transparent dresses—all with hats to match. TV does not do justice to the famous Twin Spires and perfectly manicured grounds of Churchill Downs. It is an all-day affair. At 8 am the doors open, and the mint juleps start flowing in preparation for the races that start around ten am.
Now, if you have a chance to go, expect the lines to run around 90 minutes to get seated, but you needn’t catch the first race. Thousands of cars are parked on home owners’ front yards, where many of the residents prepare barbecue as an additional income generator to their parking services. Yes, the whole town participates in this Derby Day circus!
Now, luckily for us, we arrived by a police escorted motorcade, whisking by the traffic to the front door, or should I say red carpet, and were requisitely handed a mint julep. That same mint julep was magically full for the entire day. One of the perks of knowing the Mayor.
While everyone else was peering from the outside of the paddock, we were some of the few who walked through the horse’s paddock and into the winner’s circle. An unbelievable experience: the beauty and grace of the horses, the seriousness of the trainers and jockeys, the over hundred years of tradition, the array of colors and hundreds upon hundreds of glorious hats.
The tradition of the Derby really can be summed up in three words: horses, juleps and hats. At times between races, the main event was to roam around, people watch and snap hat shots instead of checking the odds for the next race. Enormous rainbow colored, plumed hats; over-sized floral hats; hats with brims so expansive there was no way you could find a face below; hats that resembled mini movie sets with horses and buildings and dollar bills.
The pride of the spectators is palpable, and the gracious southern manners are never overlooked. Our host family has sat in the same box for 40 years, a little outdoor area with six folding chairs where the family of about 20 ensure that they all have their julep ready to huddle in for the 6:34pm post.
We were fortunate in that we could watch the races from the box, or Turf Club, an indoor area with many screens, open bar, and eye candy galore. Not to mention the likes of Kate Upton, Megyn Kelly and Ted Cruz. Not found all together, of course. (I’m resisting comment on the luminaries.)
When it was time to bet on the big race, my phone started pinging like crazy. Friends from all over the country called and texted wanting to place bets. Exactas, trifectas, win place show. Lucky for me, I travel with my lucky girlfriend who with no homework seems to sniff winning horses by name. We had already banked $750.00 on a $20.00 bet on winning horse Camelot Kitten and were smugly watching the pros feign enthusiasm for our amateur accomplishments.
As the big race neared, people moved into the stands in throngs, the crowds roared, the classic “My Old Kentucky Home” was sung in unison, and with the ring of a bell they were off! The tough part for gamblers was that Nyquist, the favorite by a landslide, had little upside on the odds so we had no option but to bet on Exaggerator to win place and show. We did just fine. Exaggerator came in second. The best two minutes in sports had come to an end.
A beautiful buffet awaited us in a Louisville penthouse with all the trimmings: Smithfield ham and biscuits, mini hot browns – a real family favorite –and classic Derby pie. As we stared out onto the drizzly Louisville skyline, we raised a last glass of bourbon to the evening, toasting a day that neither Nyquist, nor I, will forget.