There is no place in the world like Churchill Downs on Derby Day. Yes, of course, strictly speaking, there is no place in the world just like any other on any given day. But when I and others make the "no place in the world" comment, we are not speaking strictly, are we. We are loosely saying that the Kentucky Derby is an experience not minutely exceptional, but wholly foreign and original to those unfamiliar. The truth of this statement is less obvious and it necessarily comes with the skeptics' retort, "How so?" This "how so?" is what some first-time Derby-goers are seeking, including this one.
I drove to Kentucky on the Friday before the Derby. This Friday, come to find out, Kentucky school children have off. Why? I don't know. I'm not from Kentucky. It seems strange that the day before a horse race is given the import of a national holiday. It seems even stranger given what the Derby appears to stand for to an outsider.
Watching the Derby every year from a safe distance in Western New York it seemed to be a celebration of the Old South; an event that had somehow existed in the Confederacy and was imported to our current age with only as many changes as were absolutely necessary. Kentucky, of course, was never part of the Confederacy, old or otherwise, and this actually may contribute to the unapologetically Southern flavor of the event.
The owners of the horses are more often otherwise anonymous extraordinarily rich Southerners than they are urbane self-made millionaires. They have money because their fathers had money and he had money because his father had money and so on until you think there might be a father who owned somebody else's father. They are the unknown rich, without whom, there is no horse racing. Yet, they are almost never the featured player in the media's coverage of the event.
The trainers were the ones you remembered, Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas. These were the memorable names, besides the horses of course. Even the jockeys were only important if this happened to be their first Derby win or their tenth. I have watched all three Triple Crown races every year since I can remember and cannot name one jockey. The jockeys are fundamentally the people that win the event. They are the lone human athletes. Yet, they are so anonymous, so beside the point, that a casual fan cannot name one of them.
Upon arrival at my friends' house outside of Louisville, I was immediately alerted to the existence of a corollary to the Derby I was previously unaware of: "The Kentucky Oaks" or simply "The Oaks" to those in the know or in Kentucky. The Oaks is, come to find out, an important horse race at Churchill Downs the day before the Kentucky Derby. If the Kentucky Derby is designed to show off Kentucky and the glamorous world of horse racing to the rest of us naive sports fans or bourbon enthusiasts, The Oaks appears designed to show off Kentucky to Kentucky. The race consists of only fillies and the local TV coverage stresses the classiness of the event and the fact that it is "A Day for the Ladies." How could one tell? The color of The Oaks is pink. Men wear pink, (1) women wear pink, some of the more sophisticated horses' hooves are colored pink.
The television coverage of The Oaks in Louisville is a cross between the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, a red carpet event in which there are no celebrities, and a local morning show. The local news team did its best between races to track down horse owners, trainers and old white men of all kinds. In a stroke of genius natural cross-promotion, The Oaks has adopted Breast Cancer Awareness as part of its festivities. The ad hoc attachment of a serious cause to a day devoted to affluence, sexism (er, the ladies) (2) and pink seems only natural. In fact, a significant part of the event involved a touching tribute to cancer survivors, as they march around the track and get interviewed by local news correspondents who first ask them about their hat and then ask them about how they or someone they know survived cancer. As an outsider you want to take this parade seriously. It is, stripped of all its Oaks/Derby flair, a noble display of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of a terrible disease. However, as my friend from Maine noted (and later recanted out of political correctness and serious consideration of what we were witnessing), "This is stupid," is the overwhelming sense an outsider gets from the parade and the entire lead up to the race.
This year a female jockey won The Oaks for the first time. The race has run 138 times and for the first time ever on the day for the ladies, a lady won. Women winning should probably be added to the list alongside lilies and fillies as a thing that women love.
However, my tone is too harsh. There is nothing wrong with The Oaks. It seems like a splendid time. It is only culturally foreign, and, therefore, easy to poke fun at. A sporting event explicitly for the ladies, even if stereotypically so, is perhaps more progressive than the infinite sporting events nominally neutral, but clearly not for the ladies. What if before the Super Bowl there was a women's professional football game (and the women wore, you know, football clothes) which (at least local people) cared about, over 100,000 people attended and made cancer awareness a focal point of its festivities? Would this be a bad thing? Would this be a sexist thing? What if all attendees wore pink jerseys and giant fashionable helmets? What if there was a fashion contest involved? What if the fashion contest was more important than the game? What if children got off of school for it? What if this happened 138 times and the casual sports fan had no idea that it existed? I submit the world would be no worse for the vast majority of us ignorant fans and slightly better for the participants. Okay, now I'm not bothered by The Oaks. Are you?
However grand the spectacle of The Oaks may be, it is not The Derby. The Derby does not have a theme, it does not have a mandatory color choice, there is no gender which The Derby is for (men of course!). The Derby is what not only most sports fans, but most people, associate with Kentucky. (3) Let's play word association: Kentucky. "Derby" is the answer, right?
Anticipating the potential of the days' festivities, I volunteered to be one of the designated drivers for my friends the night before, as we went out exploring some of the various establishments. My friends, having already gone bourbon tasting earlier in the day as I made the drive from Western New York diagonally through Ohio, flying through the great cities of Buffalo, Erie, Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati in less than rapid succession, were less forward thinking. Needless to say after a 3am stop at Krispy Kreme it did not look promising for an early start.
It was near noon when we parked on the University of Louisville campus about a mile away from Churchill Downs. The scene in the parking lot was like something from a professional football tailgate, at least it somewhat resembled those in Buffalo. Somehow it seemed more intense, less about food, more about alcohol, and I mourned out loud that we should have arrived several hours earlier. Those five hours of early morning Derby Day drunkenness were lost forever. Tragedy.
In any case, we passed the games of cornhole, beer pong, ladder golf and a sea of red cups containing, no doubt, water or diet Seven Up. It was hot already, not unbearable, but the type of heat that forces, absolutely forces, one to drink their $11 mint julep before the ice melts and then chew on the ice in order to stay hydrated. We exited the parking lot and followed the throng towards the race track alongside others like us and not like us. Women in hats with feathers that would attack within a two foot radius, shirtless men with body odor that would attack within a five foot radius, old couples in suits and dresses, twenty-somethings with burnt skin and red noses, Nascar-apparel-donning forty-somethings and white people of all kinds, some drunk, some looking forward to being drunk.
We passed a couple of friendly Christian faces handing out pamphlets with the headline "God Loves You." This, I did not expect. What I expected was coming, much closer to the (pearly) gates which one must cross to enter the Derby. Virtually from the time you could distinctly make out the entrance there was a line of people waiting to get in, and not just a line but several lines and a mob. People were in relatively orderly lines on both sides of the gate, each supposedly converging on the entrance. In between these two lines was a mob of people also converging on the same entrance, but without any pretension to forming a line. This was the absolute worst organization to enter any event I had ever seen. And the event was already in progress! The third race was about to go off as we joined the middle mob.
Smack dab in the middle of the mob, I found what I was expecting earlier: namely, a bunch of extremely hateful people with megaphones professing to speak for God and Jesus amongst others. "God judges you all the time! Why would there be a Judgment Day if God did not judge?!" shouted one skinny white man perhaps spitting out some of his few remaining teeth through a megaphone. "I'm convinced," I muttered to a friend as we pushed forward through the mob to a spot where we moved an inch a minute for about an hour, the voice of the hate mongerers slowly fading into the general displeased malaise of the crowd.
This "line" was apparently for those who had brought coolers or lawn chairs to the event, a class of people which included my group. We had packed our cooler, innocently, with sandwiches, water and Pepsi (no really, we did). Churchill Downs had warned us through their website not to bring in alcohol and as responsible citizens, unwilling to take the risk, we adhered. Apparently the "line" had not been moving due to some extent, you know, beyond the absurd organizational deficiencies, to security checking everyone's coolers. Perhaps the powers-that-be got word that an increasingly angry, sweaty and unwillingly sober crowd was gathering outside the gates surrounding a group of hostile religious zealots who had no problem reassuring them that they were all going to Hell, because at some point during the hour, security stopped checking bags and coolers altogether and the mob-line started inching ahead at a faster clip. The rent-a-cops posing as security outside the entrance reassured people that if they stowed or chugged their current beverage, they would have no problem. Chugged was the overwhelming choice.
An older couple near us consisting of an obnoxious rudder-faced man who kept yelling at whoever might listen, "There's something wrong here!" "Should we leave? We should leave, right?" and his presumed wife who struck an untold number in the face with the feather on her hat vacated as the mob-line finally stormed the gate, moving nearly a foot a minute.
En route to the infield there is a long, dark, damp tunnel with people inexplicably shouting "USA! USA!" and a tenor saxophonist playing the national anthem on repeat for God knows how long. The mood was of feverish anticipation of the approaching unknown delights of the infield. I felt like a gladiator getting ready to enter the Coliseum. That is, if a gladiator had no concerns about his impending death and was instead merely preparing himself for imminent debauchery. Maybe I should have felt more like the emperor. Thousands of emperors for the day hastened their stride as the tunnel emptied out into the light.
When the sun came into view, it was joined by the disinterested faces of 60,000 people roaming around the grassy mud pit, sipping on drinks or chomping on giant turkey legs, neither welcoming nor eschewing the presence of the persistent flow of newcomers forthcoming from the tunnel. Ecstatic to see the light of day with room to roam freely, we do a lap around the infield in search of a place to settle down, or in my case to find out what exactly will be the best way to approach drinking in this place. The first reservoir consists of $8 bottles of Miller Lite, I pass. The next is $9 mixed drinks, consisting of bourbon, whiskey or vodka drinks. Finally I see the signs for the $11 Mint Juleps.
I go for the mixed drinks, hoping for a generous pour. "If there is even a shot and a half in these we're coming out streets ahead," I think. She measures out one shot into a six ounce plastic cup with ice and throws in two ounces of Pepsi for good measure. This won't do. There's not even enough liquid to keep me occupied.
We settle down near where we entered just outside the mud, on the gravelly outskirts, a safe distance from one of the betting windows, where two of the four corner video boards are barely visible and you can see the horses for .003 seconds every race; a prime spot of real estate at this point. Within twenty minutes we are pinned into place by a group of families, with children and everything. What are they doing here?
Two of my friends who had been talking gambling strategy during The Oaks yesterday and occasionally today decided to place some carefully thought of bets on some of the early races. What they said sounded like it was based on empirical evidence and reason, but was ultimately a combination of hunch and arbitrary selection of a few of the statistics listed in the program. As lawyers, we're good at that type of thing. They lost, but if x and y had happened just slightly differently, they would have won big. No matter, isn't the point to drink and observe the madness until you become a part of it?
There was some sort of party going on at the turn across from us. Loud music, people dancing, the demographics skewed younger in that section. Crazy? Not really. The really crazy thing was that I saw two different 1992 Dream Team jerseys (Barkley and Magic), oh, and there were people dressed as horses, Gumby, Colonel Sanders and whatever else you could imagine. Men wore shirts sometimes, women wore dresses or half shirts sometimes, children, they wore children's clothes and seemed mostly sober. Why are they here?
After succumbing to the obligatory mint julep with a stalk of mint that could choke a, well, horse, I returned to the mixed drink tent to acquire the drink my friend claimed he owed me for driving last night. Do most people eat the mint? I was not paying close enough attention, but at $11 I was going to eat all the mint they were willing to throw at me. My friend had a not terribly crazy thought that if he ordered bourbon on the rocks they would give him more than the one shot they were throwing into the "& Pepsi" drinks. False. The bartender first poured my drink same as before, she then poured my friend's by withholding the Pepsi. Mint Juleps from here on out. They seem more alcoholic, come with a commemorative glass (good idea?) and all that mint. It's settled, the julep is king.
The next few hours consisted of wondering about looking for strangeness, more juleps and exploring the various corners of the infield. There is the aforementioned party corner, the "we can see the horses for two seconds, so we're kind of serious about this gambling thing" corner, the ATM/betting window money pit corner and the entrance corner where we had staked out our home base.
The party corner reminded me of a giant fraternity party during alumni weekend. That is, alongside a throng of drunken, perhaps high, college students there was interspersed a bunch of creepy old guys. There was a DJ, some assortment of dancers and it appeared as though a contest or two had been held earlier. I'm thinking there was a t-shirt cannon, but I could be wrong. By the time we stopped to check out the scene, the DJ was announcing the end of the festivities and the mob was thinking about dispersing to focus on that nationally important sporting event that was supposedly happening all around us.
Actually paying for drinks at the Derby was taking its toll on my wallet and I wanted to make sure I had enough cash to bet on the Derby itself. We therefore made an elongated stop at the money pit. There were maybe six ATMs in the entire infield, three in the corner by the betting window and a few others interspersed among the overpriced food and drink tents. The dearth of ATMs led directly to the gross line I had to endure to be able to waste more money on overpriced drinks and throw it away gambling on a sport I had no pretense of understanding. Close scrutiny was paid to those joining their friends in line, the time it took an individual to withdraw funds and how much they were withdrawing. Feeling strong with bourbon, mint, and julep, I even noted to a stranger in line who had become a compatriot in the fight to withdraw funds and criticize those not within earshot, "What's that guy withdrawing $20? He can't get a friend to lend him $20?" I also made a comment about a guy withdrawing $500, something about a gambling problem. It was hot, we were all irritable, held hostage by these machines which contained our money. There was even a rumor, started by a tank top in front of us that the machines were running out of money and that the last time the tank top waited in line on the other side of the infield the machine ran out just before it was his turn. Paranoia. We were held without gambling or alcohol for 45 minutes in the hot Kentucky sun. Finally, I withdrew my sum and headed directly to the betting window, after a mint julep stop of course.
Another line. There was a statuesque beautiful and beautifully dressed brunette in line directly behind us. She was wearing an off-white dress with a red sash, accentuating her lipstick and somehow still lily white skin. She had sunglasses on, making eye contact impossible. She waited alone silently behind us to place her bet. She belonged in a catalogue or a 1960s detective movie, not the squalor of the infield betting line. Her stoicism only added to her allure. She didn't even have a program, she just knew, she had some horse in mind. I, however, was flipping through my friend's program in search of horses with long odds and interesting names.
I had listened to all the trifecta, superfecta, box nonsense from people who sounded like they knew what they were talking about and actually understood what the terms meant now. Still, my strategy all along being a fan of both the Buffalo Bills and Chicago Cubs was to choose some longshots with the hope that one would win. I did box the tenth race with a longshot and the favorite. That lost.
I placed four $4 bets to win on the horses I thought had the best names: "Creative Cause" (11:1), "Went The Day Well" (30:1), "Done Talking" (39:1) and "I'll Have Another" (15:1). The gambling attendant asked me if that was all and for some reason I felt compelled to put two dollars on "Union Rags" (5:1) who perhaps subconsciously was the horse I thought would win. I would not recommend my strategy to anyone interested in logic or winning money. You are essentially hedging bad bets with more bad bets and diminishing your payoff should one of your inane choices hit.
I handed my friend's program to the stranger behind me who asked to borrow it, not the beautiful one; she knew what she was doing. I had forgotten momentarily that the program was not mine to hand over or else simply did not have the sobriety necessary to say no. Thinking me some kind of an expert, the stranger asked me what I bet on. Did he not see the beautiful savant behind him who probably picked one through twenty in order using some sort of algorithm she calculated in her head? Am I attributing too much to diffidence and a well-worn pair of sunglasses? "I don't know, a bunch of horses that won't win. I have no idea what I'm doing," I respond. I start to walk away and then feel guilty about my friend's program. The stranger hands it back after he makes his guess wagers, thankful for all my expertise.
It was just before the tenth race when we placed our bets so we wondered over to the far corner from the entrance, mint juleps in tow, to get the best view possible of the horses from the infield. This is something like the most efficient ATM line or the most sober University of Louisville student. The horses whooshed by, an impressive fraction of a second and we turned back inward to re-join the human madness and see if any of us picked the 10th correctly. We didn't.
People were scrambling now. Those who remembered were staking out areas with access to giant but distant monitors. Others were lining up by the thousands to place final wagers. Still others were making final stops at the troughs they call restrooms centrally located next to yet another mint julep stand. We made our way back to our corner, the corner entrance, where the screens were visible. Our group gathered round, clutching our drinks and gambling tickets in hopes that one would pay for the other. Somebody had bought me a beer at this point, or I was handed a beer . . . I was drinking a beer, I know that much. The screens showed the trumpeter with his faux formality play the signaling call to the horses. He places the trumpet by his side rigidly, but with a type of nonchalance that clearly indicates that this is not a military funeral.
This is familiar; the screen shows me what I had known of the Derby. The hats, the horses, the celebrities, the extraordinarily rich people, the distinctive plantation southern flair of the seersucker suits, the ridiculous horses' names, the odds displayed neatly next to each name. It's quant and momentarily reassuring. All around the unknown craziness of the infield creeps in, a man being carried away on a stretcher, motionless from seven too many mint juleps, some rich young corporate sleaze in a box the back of which overlooks the betting windows of the infield throwing money down in front of the lowly infielders, as my compatriots conform to his 18 th century French bourgeoisie expectations by scrambling for the dollar bills as if grabbing that dollar would make up for the $200 they just willingly parted with at the betting window. The sport of kings!
The horses were lining up on screen, escorted as they always are, looking regal, antebellum. The race, this is the race. I try to focus, the madness seeming to cease around me as whatever attention people can muster is directed at the various screens. I don't know what any of the horses I bet on look like. I don't know who trained them. I don't know who sired them. I don't know who owns them. I don't know what colors they are in. The drinks are affecting me. I can't focus. I stare at the screen, it's blurred, the horses are moving quickly, I hear the announcer, he's not really mentioning any of the names I'd picked. The crowd is getting louder. I can't hear the announcer. The horses whoosh by. I don't know what order they're in. And then it's over.
My friend won. I'm hearing she picked the winner. We congratulate her as she moves towards the betting window in her giant black hat. She returns shortly. She didn't actually win. "Brian, did you say you had 19?" "Yeah, that was one of them." "I think you won, yeah, pretty sure you won." I walk towards the line in front of the closest betting window by myself. There is still general uncertainty even in the betting lines five minutes after the race. As I become part of the actual line, it is confirmed continuously by all the smiling idiot drunks (including eventually this one) that in fact "I'll Have Another" or 19 won.
Guess who would bet on a horse that none of the experts had winning, but who had a name which could easily be interpreted as a sort of alcoholic's rallying call? Smiling idiot drunks. Come to find out the name is about cookies, this makes it better. The smiling idiot drunks could not be more cordial. "How much did you bet?" was the question most often asked, and some play on buying drinks for or because of I'll Have Another was made by absolutely everyone in line. I convince myself that I'll Have Another was the horse I would have bet if I only would have bet on one horse and that I really should have bet at least $20 on him.
Quite possibly the most pleasant line of my life, we're all winners after all. I almost didn't want it to end. The attendant greeted me with a look that indicated, "I wonder how much this smiling idiot drunk bet?" I handed her my slip and she handed me $64.20. I walked proudly back having netted about four mint juleps. "I'll Have Another" was included in every sentence I heard echoing through the tunnel out of the infield. Well not every sentence. "USA! USA!" as we're inching ahead, sweaty, dehydrated, still drunk, but sobering.
We lose two of our friends on the walk back to the car. We assume they didn't push their way through the thousands of people as cleverly as the rest of us. "They're too nice," we say to ourselves. They're waiting at the car. I pass out in the backseat and cannot relay anything to you about the ride home. This is the Derby, this was the Derby. I'll Have Another.