Thursday, June 2, 2016


The first Saturday in May is a magic day in Kentucky.  Every year in Louisville, the largest city, they gear up for Derby.  It's pronounced "lou a vul", not "loo iss ville".  I love the people of Kentucky.  Manners matter to Kentuckians.  Every native we meet is polite to an extreme--Yes sir! No sir! I don't know if the locals wear hats the rest of the year, but on Derby Day, everyone wears a hat.

Louisville has other attractions.   Downtown Louisville sports a 30' X 40" banner with a giant picture of hometown actress Jennifer Lawrence.  Louisville is also famous for Louisville Slugger baseball bats, Col. Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Bourbon whiskey distilleries. 

The center of the action on Derby Day is Churchill Downs, an antiquated race track (built in 1875) with virtually no access for handicapped people.  That was a concern for us, as Dianne has difficulty climbing stairs--although walking down is not much of a problem.  Our seats were in the second level grandstand, and the staff walked us to a freight elevator in the back.  We rode to the second level, walked across the concourse to the seating and down about 6 steps to the grandstand level.   Of course, that meant that for her to visit the food stands or the bathrooms, she would have to climb those steps.  In all fairness, they can accommodate wheelchairs in certain sections, but not where we were sitting.

Incidentally, the racetrack was not named after Winston Churchill--or his relatives.   John and Henry Churchill owned the land where the track sits.  Their nephew, Meriwether Lewis Clark (grandson of William Clark of Lewis & Clark fame) started the Louisville Jockey Club and leased the land from the Churchills to build the facility.    He raised money by selling memberships.  The racetrack officially opened May 17, 1875 with three races on the card--the Clark Handicap, the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby.   The winning horse in the first Kentucky Derby was Aristides.  There were 15 horses in the race.  The course was  a mile and a half.  Since 1896, the race has been run at its current distance, a mile and a quarter.   About the same time, they added the iconic Twin Spires to the facility.

Aristides's owner, Hal McGrath, who made his fortune operating a gambling house in New York, named the horse after his good friend Aristides Welch, another horse breeder.  The trainer, Ansel Williamson, and the jockey, Oliver Lewis were both African-American.   In that era, virtually all of the jockeys were African-American.

We taxied over from our hotel, arriving prior to the first race at 10:30 AM and took our obligatory photo in front of the large Kentucky Derby statue outside the stadium.  The big race, the 12th race, is run at 6:30 PM, and there are two races after that.  We're talking a long day.  Our seats were on the homestretch, in the sun, about 300 yards from the finish line.  It was a sunny warm May afternoon with storms in the forecast.   The big hats were a necessity--to avoid sunburn.

We settled in for a long day of racing and people watching.  The people watching is better than the race itself, which is only 2 minutes long.  People outdid themselves for the most outrageous fashions.  For men, bowties are de rigueur.  The men's ties don't necessarily match their shirts.  Men wore cranberry, lime green or loud plaid pants.   Their outfits would make a used car salesman blush.  Some wore checkered or plaid suits with bowties.  Most of the men wore white hats.  I wore a brown broad brimmed hat.

For the women, the millinery stores had a field day.   The women wore beautiful sundresses with broad brimmed hats adorned with flowers, feathers, blinking lights and everything else you could imaging.  A woman seated near us wore a hat with about a dozen long stemmed roses sticking out above the hat with a blinking light in the middle of each one. 

The atmosphere was electric as the grandstand filled up during the afternoon.  The drink vendors walked up and down the aisles shouting "Julie, Julie".  I soon realized they were peddling mint juleps, the signature drink of the Derby--for $13 each.  No paper cups--they were served in a souvenir keepsake glass.  At least you got a nice glass for your 13 bucks.  The drink is too sweet for me.  It consists of Kentucky Bourbon, sweet syrup, crushed ice and mint sprigs.  They sell 120,000 of them at Churchill Downs on Derby weekend.  About half of those were purchased by the guy in front of us.   A good time was had by all.

Just before the 11th race, the monsoon hit, with driving rain and high winds.  Fortunately, we brought plastic ponchos and weathered the storm.  Ten minutes later, it cleared up and the races continued. 

The main attraction of the Derby is, of course, the horses.  The race is a contest of the 20 best three year old horses in the country.   To qualify for the race, the horse must accumulate a certain number of points by winning or finishing in the money at several major prep races in the months prior to the race.   One horse in the race was a maiden--he had never won a race.   He is still a maiden.

The favorite, Nyquist was named after an obscure Swedish hockey player named Gustav Nyquist who plays for the Detroit Red Wings.   The horse's owner Paul Reddam, a Canadian, is an avid Red Wings fan.  He owns other horses who are also named for hockey players--Niklas Kronwall, Tomas Tatar and Petr Mrazek.  Those horses are just as obscure as their namesakes. 

Nyquist, the horse won all seven of his races leading up to the Derby.  I picked him in the Exacta and Trifecta, but was hoping for a longshot to beat him, so I could win some serious money.  My choice was Brody's Cause, in honor of my 9 month old grandson, Brody Suskin.  Brody's Cause had won the Bluegrass Stakes a month earlier, and he was a 25-1 longshot in the Derby.  This was my opportunity--if he could win, there would be a big payoff.  He disappointed me, finishing far back in the pack.  Nyquist won the race fairly easily.  Exaggerator, the second favorite finished second, and the payoffs were small.   We did win the trifecta, but it didn't pay very much. 

As we left the track, more severe storms were looming.  We walked a half mile to wait in line for the taxicabs.  As the storm rolled in the police suggested we evacuate.  There was no place to go.  We were dressed for the rain.  We rode out the lightning storm and arrived back at the hotel, very wet but satisfied with the experience.