News and Tribune

May 5, 2013

Oh, the humanity: Derby brings rain, excitement

By GARY POPP
gary.popp@newsandtribune.com

LOUISVILLE —

The 139th Kentucky Derby went off under an overcast sky that left many of the more than 150,000 horse racing fans in attendance wet and muddy. But, with wild cheers as the powerful colts rounded the track and the sound of clinking mint julep glasses, it was clear Derby goers' spirits weren't dampened.

Men in head-to-toe baby blue seersucker suits and women in their Sunday best and large, ornate Derby hats trampled through deep rain puddles, mud slicks and discarded trash throughout Churchill Downs. 

In the shadow of the grandiose twin spires, on Derby Day, the traditional lines between social classes become jumbled, contorted and almost dizzying.

A young man was seen wearing only frayed cargo shorts and aviator sunglasses while carrying a light beer in a plastic cup. Nearby, another man wearing a designer suit, wicker fedora and slick leather loafers clamped a $23 cigar between his teeth and sipped on a glass chalice half full of imported beer.

At the Kentucky Derby, perhaps the Halloween of porting events, a person can be anyone they want to be.

The continuous light rain throughout the day caused crowds to congregate under the open-air overhangs to keep dry. People were packed so tightly as they moved from one point to another, the atmosphere, in some places, was more like a sold-out rock concert than a typical day at the Downs - and that was outside of the paddock. The infield was a whole other spectacle.

The seersucker and fedora folks were much less noticeable in the wet grasses of the track's nucleus.

A younger crowd filled the infield, where the environment was more Mardi Gras than genteel southern sophistication.

Large, oddly shaped, colorful plastic containers filled with sugary booze fueled many of those in the infield masses. 

While near Millionaires Row a woman in a high-heeled, Italian leather pump may delicately step around a puddle of rain, in the infield 20-something men sloshed through the mud, carelessly kicking up brown water on their legs and shirtless backs. 

The Kentucky Derby, the longest continual sporting event in the country, in its excess of alcohol, gambling and carefree spirit, is an environment of wide acceptance where debutants, blue-collar locals and the 1-percenters can come together to cheer in exuberance and unison, “Go, baby. Go!”

 

THE WEEKEND WARRIOR

“The selling point of the Derby is that it allows the common man to feel like an aristocrat,” said Louisvillian Ed Vanhorn, 26, who attended race day while playing host to several out-of-state Derby neophytes.

“I brought my friends from South Carolina because there is a lot of pageantry surrounding the horse racing and the way the people dress, so I wanted to bring them into an environment that is so unusual,” Vanhorn said, and added his friends had never experienced the sour bite of a mint julep.

Vanhorn said that it's the people who make the Derby, not the allure of winning big.

“What makes Derby so special is not the horse racing itself, but the community,” he said. “Frankly, I wanted to expose them to this environment.”

Vanhorn said Derby provides a special escapism that is unique for a sporting event.

“The idea is that common men, for just one day, can feel special in their own right, can bet on horses, can be among a community of similar people, but, at the same time, are so unique.” 

 

THE LOCAL

Even in the elbow-to-elbow crowd, Santana Jones, of East Louisville, stood out in his all black attire that exuded cool.

A wide-brimmed hat with tilt positioned just right sat on his head, but his rare boots were the gem of his wardrobe.

“These are alligator riders,” Jones said proudly. “I try to stay dapper all the time, but I step it up for Derby,” 

Jones also played host during the Derby day to friends and family from Indianapolis, Ohio and Tennessee.    

“I love everything about the Derby,” Jones said. “I go to all the activities. I go to the events. It is the most exciting thing I get to do all year. I love it.”

Jones, a construction worker, said the Derby allows him the chance to break from his normal routine.

“People come from all over the world for this,” he said. “And, I am black, and black people come from all around America, so I gotta be a part of that.”

 

THE CALIFORNIA GIRL

Amisha Singh, 29, of Los Angeles, said she wanted to come to her first Derby to find out what all the talk was about.

“I am here because I have heard a lot about it, and I'm visiting my boyfriend and that is all he talks about, so I wanted to check it out,” she said.

Singh, like many of the woman at the track, wore a fancy Derby hat and a well-thought-out summer dress.

And, like the others, at some point in the day, her outfit received an unexpected addition - a large poncho made of thin plastic. The fancy hat with the cheap poncho made it appear as if many of the women had arrived for a formal wedding service that had been interrupted by a ferocious downpour. 

But the L.A. Resident wasn't fazed.

“I have had an amazing time,” Singh said, adding she was impressed with her visit to Churchill Downs.

 

THE IMMIGRANT

Kazu Ito, 28, a native of Japan, was found standing on the perimeter of a bustling group of people near where a tunnel leads to the infield.

“It is very exciting,” Ito said of his first Derby experience. “This is a dream since I was born in Japan. The Derby is very famous in Japan. Horse racing is most famous.”

Ito left Japan for a job in Georgia about 10 months ago, and made the trip to Louisville to realize one of his childhood dreams. 

Ito said he was able to tour the city earlier in the week before coming to Churchill Downs

“It is a very beautiful city and historical,” he said. “[Louisville] is gorgeous, very gorgeous. Japan is not so gorgeous. So, this is a party, right? That's good, I think.”