For the novitiate, the Kentucky Derby is the first leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. It is followed in close succession by the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, that triumvirate of tests by which the potential of a racehorse is measured. But for the veterans, the Derby is much more than that: it is a migration, a celebration, a libation, a sartorial connotation, a race, and a renewal of a warmer, more salubrious season. And like the fog that settles over Churchill Downs on a frosty spring morning, the Kentucky Derby is enveloped in legend.
There’s the spirit of Secretariat that lingers in the paddock. There’s the palpable fever of anticipation as the “Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” draws near. There’s “Millionaire’s Row,” a line of luxury box seats claimed by a powerful and connected cadre of owners and arrivistes. There’s the mud-strewn infield and cramped uproar of pikers along the rail.
There’s the silver-cupped julep, the heavy stews, and mouthwatering pies, but also the fascinators, bow ties, and seersucker blends worn by the patrons that consume them. There are fireworks over the Downs and unknown fortunes won and lost at shabby mutuel windows. There’s the eternal interplay of elitism and populism, bound together by tradition and a healthy dose of bourbon. And each year, for one fine thoroughbred and its handlers, there’s a fledgling dream of the triple crown.
The Spectacle of Derby Week
The Kentucky Derby truly begins a couple of weeks before the paddocks are flung wide. It is an event spread across a two-week flotilla of music, fashion, fireworks, barrels of Kentucky bourbon, and the occasional horse race. The popular Kentucky Derby Festival, a staple since 1956, envelops the whole of Louisville in the festive atmosphere–a kind of Americanized running of the bulls–with parades, steamboat races, river brunches, poker tournaments, spelling bees, and sporting events.
These open-to-the-public, populist diversions are generally organized for the hoi polloi, those who might not make it onto the hallowed turf of Churchill Downs. But for the semi-mythical landed gentry, who comprise a privileged place in the Apocrypha of the Derby, there are parties that offer special access to the Downs, where one can enjoy a bit of elbow room, and the edifying companionship of other moneyed aficionados.
“The Kentucky Derby…marks an arrival of hope, a rite of spring, and constitutes the New Year’s Day of Sports…”
For the discriminating Derby-goer of this class, the options are rich, to put it mildly. “Derby Week” at the Downs includes an opening “Dress to Impress” cocktail party, where affluent locals mix and mingle. Then “Champions Day” honors famous jockeys and trainers (two legendary riders have claimed Derby glory five times each). “Dawn at the Downs” permits a small group to witness the great hoofed beasts themselves as they mosey around the track during morning training sessions, and comes replete with a “delicious buffet”.
Expert commentary is provided as the ravenous race fans stuff themselves on cream cheese biscuits and smoked ham while observing the finely-tuned thoroughbreds trot the track. The contrast between the species is startling, if not wholly edifying. Later, live music and bourbon are coupled in another festive ritual. Then comes “Kentucky Oaks Day,” a curious “celebration of ladies,” of both the equine and human variety, on the runway and the racetrack.
Also, the curiously named, “Taste of Derby” may not immediately whet the appetite, but the rollicking music, live cooking show, and premium wine tasting will. You can taste the carnivorous delights of burgoo, a thick stew with chunks of sirloin, lamb, and chicken, marinated with Worcestershire sauce and Kentucky sorghum, among other delectables. Legend has it that this curious admixture of mammal, fowl, and veggies was derived from the bulgar porridge that sailors once consumed on cross-Atlantic voyages. It is perhaps a distant cousin of Brunswick stew and mulligan stew. Once you’ve downed this delicious fare, you can move on to the utterly decadent bourbon chocolate walnut Derby pie, or one of its thousandfold derivative pie bars, cupcakes, truffles, or cookies.
Dressing, Drinking, and Watching
As one might expect from a visit to such sacred ground, there’s no shortage of anxiety spent determining what to wear to the Kentucky Derby. Ladies typically opt for spring dresses in light pastels and an iconic wide-brimmed hat, often with bows or flowers or feathers. Fascinator headpieces are all the rage thanks to Kate Middleton, every commoner’s sartorial role model. Some attendees have been known to don “equine patterns” to uncertain effect.
Men generally wear plaids, some don seersucker suits, and others peacock themselves with rose-themed blazers. Again, light pastels are the rule and men tend to opt for colorful neckties, with bowtie sightings ticking higher as the race approaches.
Outfitted just so, it is incumbent upon the veteran attendee to be seen sipping a mint julep. As familiar to race fans as the gin fizz once was to boxing fans, the mint julep has been the unofficial official drink of the Derby since the late 1800s. Some 120,000 are served during the Derby (along with 40,000 Oaks Lily cocktails). How many are promptly served right back up to the grandstand floor has yet to be tabulated.
Legends of the drink’s misty origin abound. A delicate mix of bourbon, powdered sugar, mint leaves, and ice, mint juleps at the Derby are served in silver julep cups. Even the governor toasts the victor at the Winner’s Party with one. A cursory look at the Derby’s online store revealed no silver goblets among the gaudy koozies, frosted mugs, tumblers, bottle stoppers, and shot glasses being flogged to those aspiring to own a piece of high culture. Evidently, the classic cups are the province of the Downs and available only to ticketed imbibers. As it should be. After all, the cup conjures images of landed gentry sipping juleps on warm summer noons.
If you do make it to “Derby Day” itself and cross the threshold onto the grounds, you will wade into a sea of 165,000 fellow ticket holders. In true democratic fashion, Churchill Downs is open to all on race day, with general admission tickets starting at $3. Seniors can gain entry for a buck. Where else could your garden-variety piker (like your author) access any sport’s holiest of holies, even if the heart of that 147-acre Elysium is a one-mile dirt track?
Of course, the amenities on offer are as varied as the clientele. From the exclusive Winner’s Circle Suites to Paddock Plaza, Millionaire’s Row to the Stakes Room, there are a dozen ways to watch the race or miss it entirely while debating which bourbon to order. Near the cash bar in the Stakes Room are self-service betting machines, where one can deposit a hard-won fortune on the muscled shoulders of a longshot gelding. Plenty of walk-up windows are also on offer for parting with one’s earnings.
A Run for the Roses in a Seersucker Paradise
Wagering on colts, fillies, and geldings is no passing fashion. More than $150M is won by betters large and small each year at the Derby. The official Derby website does not volunteer how much is lost by betters on the Derby, or how many bets are placed in states other than sobriety. You can place a bet for the piddling price of two dollars. It may not be the wisest way to manage your money, but as a two-buck diversion on a Sunday afternoon, it’s hard to beat.
“Although Secretariat won the Triple Crown back in 1973, he still holds the track records at the Kentucky Derby”
The subject of all that wagering, the horses themselves, are likewise the stuff of legend. Read the tale of Man o’ War related by local raconteur Ercel Ellis. The New York Herald-Tribune racing writer Joe Palmer called Man o’ War as, “near to a living flame as horses get.” Then there’s the legend of Donerail, who miraculously beat 91-1 odds to claim the crown in 1913. And there is the gorgeous drapery of 554 roses that have coated every champion since 1896 and is why we know the race as, “The Run for the Roses.”
There are later four-legged legends like Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. Although Secretariat won the Triple Crown back in 1973, he still holds the track records at the Kentucky Derby and The Preakness Stakes, an astonishing feat. The 1200-pound horse was nicknamed, “Big Red.” During his prime, Newsweek columnist Pete Axthelm described Secretariat thusly, “Secretariat generates a crackling tension and excitement wherever he goes. Even in the kind of gray weather that shrouds lesser animals in anonymity, Secretariat’s muscular build identifies him immediately; his glowing reddish coat is a banner of health and rippling power.”
From the grandstand and plaza to the suites high above the fray, the aura of a great ritual envelops it all, born from a solitary race held on a dusty track more than a century ago and won by a cold named Aristides. Esquire’s Tom Chiarella sums it up nicely, “Attending the Kentucky Derby is a sweaty, mud speckled, festooned carnival of contraction… And yet. The day matters. It marks an arrival of hope, a rite of spring, and constitutes the New Year’s Day of Sports…” It is also a maker of a million memories not likely to be soon forgotten, a day when Lady Luck shone brightly on your big gamble, or lifted you into the rarefied air of Louisville’s beau monde, or even just warmed you with the first cloudless rays of spring.
More from the “Run for the Roses”:
Hunter S. Thompson’s Gallop Through Churchill Downs