A Colorful Take on Horse Racing’s Most Eccentric Day
By Miranda McDonald
Original art by Grant Goodwine
“Use both hands to hold onto the side of the basket, bend your knees and brace for impact. We will be touching down in less than a minute. You may also want to secure your hat,” explained the man who was piloting the hot air balloon I was currently riding in. He was pointing to the beret that was adorning my head. His name was Dan, and I had just met him and Paul – a witty real estate agent from Southern Indiana – two hours before our 10-mile hot air balloon ride across Louisville. We were one of 20 balloons participating in the Great Balloon Race that morning and only briefly made introductions at Bowman Field before taking off.
As I peered over the side of our floating vessel to help locate any power lines that may give us trouble during our descent, I began to wonder why I had thought riding in a hot air balloon would be the best way to kick off my Derby week. I woke up that morning almost giddy about the idea of checking this venture off my bucket list. For years, I told anyone who would listen that I was going to ride in a hot air balloon one day. Now, I was basically standing in a bucket that was plummeting towards a driveway that split the back of a property owned by of one of the most prominent individuals in the city.
“Bend your knees! Bend your knees!” the pilot instructed as we came closer to the ground below us.
See, the thing they don’t tell you about landing a hot air balloon is that the initial impact with the ground isn’t the most difficult part to withstand as a passenger. The hard part actually comes directly after when your basket is skimming the ground, serving as an anchor to the large balloon that’s still being carried by the wind enclosed in its mast. And at this very moment, the apparatus we were standing in was skidding uncontrollably through the backyard of what I would later find out was John Schnatter’s gated property.
Once our balloon came to a complete stop, and we acclimated to not being 2,000 feet in the air, Dan pulled out a walkie talkie and contacted his team. They trailed us for several miles but fell behind once we flew past our initial landing spot.
“What now?” I asked our pilot.
“Right now, we wait,” he explained. You could tell he was a bit anxious about where we had landed. He looked around for a brief moment and settled his gaze on the house located to our right.
I followed his gaze and imagined the owner was standing by the large window that overlooked the back of his property. I pictured him abruptly abandoning his first cup of coffee on the kitchen table in order to get a better look at the three individuals who had just unexpectedly fallen out of the sky in their multi-colored air craft.
“So, are you going to Derby this year?” Paul asked. His smile effortlessly pushed up both sides of his cheeks. He seemed completely unaffected by our turbulent landing.
“No, I am actually not going to Derby this time. I can only deal with that crowd once every few years,” I responded.
“What about Oaks?”
“No. No Oaks for me either. I’m only going to Thurby this year,” I explained.
“Have you been to Thurby before?” Paul inquired further. There must have been something about the exhilaration of landing safely after falling quickly to the ground without the protection of any safety apparatus that made him especially chatty at this juncture.
“I hear Thurby is the way to go. You get the horse racing and booze without the long lines and hassle,” Dan chimed in.
“Yeah. Thurby is Gonzo-themed this year. GonzoFest is sending me and a local a visual artist named Grant Goodwine there to document our experience like Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman did 50 years ago for the Kentucky Derby. Ralph is even going to be there that day signing posters and mingling. I really want to meet him,“ I further explained.
A loud beep, followed by a brief moment of static on Dan’s walkie talkie interrupted our post-landing banter. “We can’t get on the property. There is a very large gate,” a voice stated.
After a moment of complete silence, our attention shifted to the two balloons that were now peeking over the treeline to our immediate left. They too needed a safe place to land after the race. “It looks like we have company,” Dan stated.
“Oh, they aren’t our only company,” Paul replied. I then noticed a young man had emerged from the house and was now standing on the back patio. A look of complete bewilderment framed his face. “You should go talk to him since we just landed our hot air balloon, unannounced I might add, in his backyard. Plus, you are wearing a beret. No one can be upset with a pretty girl in a beret.”
“Haha,” I belted out sarcastically. I thought Paul was joking but soon realized he was being completely serious.
After stumbling out of the basket, I made eye contact with the young man. He was slowly making his way towards our fallen vessel.
“Excuse me!” I yelled. I used one hand to readjust my beret and the other to wave at him. “Can we land our hot air balloon – I mean, can we land our hot air BALLOONS – in your backyard?”
“Umm, sure?” he responded. His eyes only briefly catching mine before he fixed them back on the small fleet of hot air balloons that were landing one by one behind me.
“Hello,” I extended my hand fully in front of me in hopes of a handshake and proper introduction. “My name is Miranda. I’m a writer. We are part of the Great Balloon Race.”
“Andrew. My name is Andrew. I am the property manager here,” he finally responded. His eyes were now on me.
“Nice to meet you, Andrew. I hope our landing here doesn’t put you in a bind with your employer.”
“No, not at all.” he assured me.
“This is great!” His confusion turned into amusement at this point. “I actually woke up this morning annoyed about having to work on a Saturday. I never would have thought that my morning would be so eventful.”
“Yeah. After this, I may just have to start every Derby week off with a hot air balloon ride,” I declared with a sarcastic tone in my voice and a smile on my face. V
To see the full story, visit gonzofestlouisville.com.