Mary Donald may have the best seat in the house for the Kentucky Derby. Her view is unobstructed. It is almost as quiet as a church. There are no jostling crowds, and it’s a short trip to her seat—51 steps to be exact. The catch is that those steps are straight up a ladder in a patrol tower, where Donald operates a broadcast camera.
For the world-famous race at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, Donald doesn’t have the only unusual seat. There also are seats in great spots offering excellent views at the best price (free!); and there are 3-inch ledge perches that, without question, offer the most up-close-and-personal view of the race.
So what is it like to be “far from the madding crowd,” away from the high-fashion set in the grandstand or the lowbrow lot in the infield?
For Donald, the obvious question has nothing to do with her seat, but getting to it. Butterflies weren’t a part of her first trip up the ladder a few years ago, but the return trip was another matter. “I wouldn’t come down until after the last race because coming down was worse,” she admits.
Her vantage point for the Derby is where the backstretch leads into the final turn, just across the track from the infield “Quadrant of Concupiscence” made infamous by the mostly under-30 crowd that drinks, debauches and disports there annually.
“They do this thing every year where they run across the ‘port-a-loos,’ ” says Donald of infield “roof races,” exhibiting her New Zealand roots as she speaks about what we know as port-a-potties.
For Donald, Derby Day is an experience she is truly in, but not of. A mere 50 or so yards away from infield revelry, she passes the time between races reading magazines or coming down to visit friends at the nearby track kitchen.
Straight from the Horse’s Back
Greg Blasi’s seat as Churchill Downs’ lead outrider—a kind of pony policeman for the Derby and all other races—is a saddle, and his initial view is from his horse just in front of the starting gate on the outside rail. If his seat strikes envy in you, think again. “All I can see, depending on the weather, is a cloud of dust and a lot of horses’ asses,” says the native Kansan with cowboy candor. He speaks, of course, of the literal kind—posteriors of Thoroughbreds pumping down the stretch.
Still, he says he has the best seat in the house. “There’s no describing it. When they get done playing ‘My Old Kentucky Home,’ you can just feel the sound hitting you in the back,” he says of the roar from the crowd that follows the traditional song.
His job, however, comes with hazards of a sort beyond what you might expect on horseback, as it is Blasi’s duty to ride down to meet the Derby winner and escort the horse back to the winner’s circle. Following one of famed jockey Calvin Borel’s Derby-winning rides, the jubilant rider kissed Blasi on the mouth. “Everybody saw it, all my friends back home,” says Blasi, not to mention a national television audience.
“There’s a guy at an equipment place in Simpsonville I do business with. Every time I come in there, if there’s anybody else there, he tells them how I kissed Calvin Borel.”
Making an understatement of monumental proportions, Blasi adds that “nobody was ever happier than Calvin.”
Gate Crew View
While Blasi is near the front of the starting gate, just behind it and actually tethered to it is tractor driver Joey Northerner. In addition to positioning the gate, his responsibility consists of pulling it to the outside rail, out of the way of the horses rounding the turn for home. Of his seat, Northerner says, “It’s amazing. I think I have the best view. When the horses are loading, I’m right next to them.”
Once horses break from the gate and he tows it away, Northerner hops down from his seat and stands to see the horses gallop by for the stretch run. “You’re out on the track, and they’re going right past you. It’s an unbelievable feeling,” he says.
Proximity is priceless for Northerner, both before and after his job is done. “I wouldn’t trade my seat,” he says.
Starter Scott Jordan’s “seat” actually is a stand on the inside rail in front of the starting gate. For him, proximity is nerve-wracking. He watches the horses load into the gate, like Blasi and Northerner, but he is responsible for actually starting the Kentucky Derby, holding in his hand the button that springs open the starting gate doors. “Once I push that button and everything goes smooth, it’s more of a relief for me.”
It is almost certain that Jordan envies the relative quiet in Donald’s camera tower as he waits for 20 nervous Thoroughbreds to get steady. “When I’m up there on the stand, no noise is good, ’cause if something is going wrong, my guys are yelling. The quieter it is, the better,” he says.
Gate assistant John James’ seat for the Derby is, like Jordan’s, not a seat but a position behind the gate and actually behind horses, shutting the rear gates as horses move into position.
“You see a lot you don’t see from the grandstand,” James says. His task involves moving from one rear gate to another in somewhat rapid succession and neither sitting nor standing, but, he says, “I like my seat a whole lot better.”
He calls his post a “privileged spot” and says he takes joy in telling people what he does on Derby Day.
Possibly the ultimate proximity also is not from a seat, per se, but the aforementioned 3-inch ledge running down the sides of each “hole,” as post positions are called, in the starting gate. Here, for assistant starters balancing on the ledge, the view is about as up-close and personal as it can possibly be, as they grip the horse’s halter to keep its head forward in anticipation of the gate opening. Both James and Jordan are veterans of this job, which is certainly one of the most dangerous in sports.
“I got too old,” James said with a smile of his former duty inside the starting gate.
Calmer Vantage Points
Safer seats in the non-working category are found down the entire backstretch or “backside” barn area of Churchill Downs, and some even provide protection from the elements. The track kitchen, hard by the top of the backstretch near Donald’s patrol tower, is a favorite for backside “insiders” who’ve gained access to the Churchill Downs barn area. There are large windows facing the track that get crowded for the Derby and every other race.
Barbara Beard’s access last year came through a son and daughter-in-law who work in the kitchen. “It’s the best seat in the house,” she says. “You can see everybody and everything, plus there’s the TV,” something not found everywhere on the backside. Last year, the Derby was a true family affair, with four of her grandchildren accompanying her and busing tables.
Next door, in a patio area, Lisa Hudgens, whose cousin manages the kitchen, commandeered picnic tables for her first Derby from the backside. Like everyone else and despite never having seen the Derby from this spot, she excitedly opines that “this is the best place to see it!
“It’s more family-oriented back here than the front [grandstand],” she says.
A veteran of backstretch Derbys since the mid-1960s, Jerry Webster shares Hudgens’ opinion. “This is the true feeling of the Derby, to be back here and see guys working and see these horses right up close like this. This is the way to do Derby,” he says with conviction.
For backside picnickers or track kitchen spectators, it is “who you know and not the dough.” Obviously, for gate-crew members and outriders, it is about the dough. As for Mary Donald, it is about the courage to climb up—and down—51 steps of a patrol tower ladder.