Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Horses are Only Half the Hype; The Party Pretty Much Sums Up the Rest of the Kentucky Derby Experience

Dubbed "the greatest two minutes in sports," the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Ky., is a spectacle, a great American cultural event and my happy place for the past three years. (Past eight years now — seven appearances. I missed Derby 135 in 2009. That year the Derby glasses were black and gold and it wasn't one the better years in my near 30).

For me, it all started when a colleague from my previous job was always talking Derby this and Derby that. He grew up in the Louisville area and said it's a holiday for his family. I had no idea why. Horse racing was of little interest to me. Little did I know. After repeatedly declining, I finally accepted the offer to be his guest at my first Derby, the 129th running. I've been back every year since, thanks to the Derby Jedi. (Shout out to BCoo)

Sure, the horses are the catalyst for the excitement, but when local churches cancel 5:30 p.m. Mass on the First Saturday In May, it's got to be about more than the horses.

During the weeks leading up to the event, the city is aflutter.

The Kentucky Derby Festival shoves aside daily routines in the city of more than 256,000 with galas, festivals, marathons and fireworks. (Now 713,870 according to 2008 U.S. Census Bureau statistics)

The festive mood kicks up a notch the week of the big event. A few beers at lunch — normally a no-no — is somehow explainable. And in the spirit of a birthday wish, "Happy Derby," becomes a common greeting.

And as the week winds down, families start sending children and dogs to sitters. (Also known as "Derby Camp").

Finally it's Friday, the day before the Derby — Kentucky Oaks Day.

Horses run then, too, but the event is more of a shirt-and-tie affair. The fresh suits and the Southern belles' flowing sundresses generally don't show until Derby Day. (Although that has shifted in recent years as it has become a day of pink, in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness).

Oaks Night fills the area with parties and final preparations for the most anticipated day of the year for the city.

As the sun rises on Derby Day, preparations for the flood of people at Churchill Downs is already under way: the food, the drinks, the souvenirs, the horses. When the crowd starts to flow in, some enjoy the thrill that has become an annual tradition: trying to sneak in alcohol. However, with the tight security restrictions few succeed.

For that brief moment of entry, the infield-bound people — clad in flip-flops and shorts — brush elbows with those headed to the elevated suites that hang next to the historic twin spires, a signature of Churchill Downs.

A Jay Z line comes to mind: "from Marcy to Madison Square." The thoughts of the hip-hop icon may have been more reflective of his social advance from New York's Marcy Projects to his "retirement extravaganza" at Madison Square Garden. Mine had less of an impact.

In the span of an hour I went from wishing luck to New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, in Louisville to root on his early Derby favorite, Bellamy Road, to slapping a high five and toasting the hedonistic ambiance of the come-as-you-are infield.

The air that surrounds the track on that First Saturday In May filled with the booze-sellers pitches: "Ice-cold-beah-heah," and "Mint Ju-lep" — two coveted traditional Derby beverages.

As the 6 p.m. hour approaches and the call to the post sounds, the bathrooms clear and the vendors calls are replaced with the crooning of "My Old Kentucky Home."

Then the last horse is in the post ... and they're off!

For two minutes, the cheers don't breath. Everyone is a potential winner. The noise subsides only when the winning horse crosses the finish line.

This year, spectators grabbed their programs to answer the question at the front of everyone's mind: "Who's Number 10?"

That's Giacomo — the 50-to-1 longshot and official winner of the 131st Kentucky Derby.

Although many of the more than 156,000 in attendance took the chance to win, few were winners.

But the party continued anyway.

At the end of my four-day stint in the Bluegrass State, when I laid down and closed my eyes on the final night, everything in my mind's eye seemed vast.

Anything in the world seemed obtainable and life's worries were not mine.

- A form of this column was originally published in the Yakima (Wash.) Herald Republic on May 15, 2005.

A lil video from Derby 136 (2010)

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