My first trip to the Kentucky Derby was surprisingly uneventful considering I went to the infield when I was 21 and in college. I was too afraid to try to sneak in booze and, after purchasing my ticket, didn’t have any money left to place a bet, let alone buy a mint julep. My second experience far surpassed the first. I lucked into free box seats and witnessed Barbaro’s decisive 2006 victory. I got chills and shed a few tears during the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” and was grateful for what I figured was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Lucky enough to get the opportunity to once again set foot on Churchill Downs’ soil on Derby Day, I was determined to visit every area of the track my press pass would allow. My legs are still a bit sore from the what-felt-like-20 miles I walked during Derby 138, so I guess I did a pretty good job.
“I can’t see in this hat.”
I’ll admit it, I’m an eavesdropper. With a record 165,000 people surrounding me on Derby Day, I had ample opportunity to indulge my auditory voyeurism. I’m certain the young woman I heard utter this phrase wasn’t the only one to do so that day. Crazy hats—both of the haute couture and homemade varieties—were, of course, abundant.
While his view was unobstructed, Tim Rask of Iowa City did have some troubles keeping his towering, rose-bedecked topper balanced on his head as he strolled the infield. This was his eighth Derby and the third for his wife, Teresa Klingenberg. “We have a whole year to work on it,” Rask joked, referring to their hats. “But really, I just drag it out of the closet about a week before. We look forward to attending [the Derby] every year.” And they want everyone to enjoy the event as much as they do, going so far as to make Derby newbies feel welcome by passing out “I’m a Derby Virgin” pins.
We photographed and chatted with many owners of creative, outlandish hats. I was surprised, though, that most of them weren’t from Kentucky. Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Indiana, California… I began to wonder if I’d actually get to speak to a Kentuckian.
“You can’t see a horse. It’s the infield!”
Not true. The infield early bird gets to see the horse.
Chris Savoy of Georgetown, Ind., and his posse of three snagged a sweet spot between the third and fourth turns by arriving to the infield before 10 a.m. They positioned themselves by the fence so “we’ll actually see a horse,” Savoy said, noting he’d been to the Derby infield six or seven times. I asked Chris if he’d taken part this year in the almost-obligatory ritual of trying to sneak in some alcohol. “It’s against the rules…” he said, with what I’m certain was a sarcastic tone.
Finally! Situated in the infield near the finish line, I found two Kentuckians. Rhonda Phillips and Tanya Stein of Springfield were attending their first Run for the Roses. “We just want to say we came to the Derby,” Phillips said. “We specifically wanted to come to the infield,” Stein added. I told them I thought they made a wise choice in where they decided to park their chairs and cooler. With the betting windows in front of them and a chain-link fence partitioning off the Turf Suites area behind them, they were somewhat protected from the swarm of people traffic. Plus, to their left was an unobstructed view of the track. They’d see those Derby contenders—even if only for a second. We checked in on the ladies again later in the day, about 40 minutes before the big race. They were enjoying their day, with not a bad word to say about the much-maligned infield.
“I watch the race, take [mental] pictures and then capture the moment,” Noel Skiba, an impressionistic painter, said. She had an easel and canvases set up near the second turn, where, yes, she could see horses race around the track. Of the infield chaos surrounding her, she said she “takes in the energy” and uses it to create her paintings, which she did with surprising speed. She created the painting on the bottom on Oaks Day and when we checked in on Skiba after the 11th race (the Derby), she had completely transformed the top canvas into a finished work of art.
It is true that many infield attendees won’t see a horse in the flesh on Derby Day, but you can watch the race on a big screen television. Photographer Josh and I decided to position ourselves beneath one of the giant monitors for the big race to capture “the most exciting two minutes in sports” on the faces of the infielders. While I was quite disappointed that, from the infield, you can’t hear the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” or the “And they’re off!” that marks the start of the race, the excitement of the race was not lost on those who chose to spend their day in the infield.
“I think we’re not drinking enough.”
I overhead this perplexing utterance not in the infield, but from a woman walking in the second floor grandstand area. Trust me, there were plenty of people that were drinking enough—and then some—during Derby 138. No surprise there.
The predictable debauchery of Derby does bring out those who oppose such revelry. Early in the day, outside gate 3, which leads to the infield, we saw demonstrators sporting signs with “Jesus said, ‘Go and sin no more’” and similar religious statements. There were also protestors of the protestors with signs stating “God hates signs,” “I have a sign” and “God loves strippers.” Many, myself included, found this drama most entertaining.
What I did not find in the least bit entertaining, though, was the aftermath of trash and trampled ground of the infield. Wow.
“It’s better than we expected.”
Janice Vititow of Orange County, Calif., was full of enthusiasm when we met her in the grandstand area, I’m guessing around 1 p.m. or so (it’s easy to lose track of time on Derby Day). There were eight in her party wanting to cross the Derby off their “bucket lists” and Vititow was enjoying her first Churchill Downs experience “meeting people” and determined to “embrace the environment.” “We came in with a positive attitude,” she said.
Also enjoying their first Derby were Alice Moore of Sacramento; Maureen Smith of Atlanta; Angela Sirls of Garland, Texas; and Kay Lester, also from Atlanta. Situated on a bench near the paddock area, the four longtime friends swore they did not coordinate their outfits. Their cheery attire was matched by their beaming smiles. They were soaking in the Derby experience and obviously enjoying every single minute of it.
I think there’s a lesson to be learned from Vititow and the four friends in fuchsia and orange. While Derby Day was not all a blanket of roses (so many people, it was hot and humid, and some drunk guy eating a corn dog dripping with cheese sauce kept putting his hairy armpit in my face and threatened to drip cheese on my head), the day is what you choose to make of it. And I choose to be a proud Kentuckian, grateful for another Derby experience of a lifetime.