The Best Feeling in the World

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Photo by Clay Cook

I’m standing as close to the edge of the silty track as I can get. The sun is high in the sky, only just beginning its descent, and there is a persistent roar from the crowd that, despite its intensity, cannot quite diminish the dull, thunder-like sound of hooves pounding, racing toward a finish line and glory. I’m at Churchill Downs, at the Kentucky Derby, and even though I’ve been here for hours, the surreal nature of the day is only just now beginning to break as I see the horses and their jockeys round the corner.

Flashback to approximately eight hours previous, and I’m getting dressed for my first trip to the Derby as a spectator. Despite having lived in Kentucky since I was 10 years old, I have never attended, never dressed to the nines and placed a bet, never before sipped on a mint julep while traversing the infield. I’ve worked at Churchill Downs as a bartender and server in the past for different events, including Derby, but even that could not prepare me for the rite of passage I was about to experience.

Now, I’m fortunate enough to live off a street whose major bus line goes directly to the Downs, so I decided to utilize public transportation to get myself to and from the track in lieu of dealing with parking. Surprisingly, things go smoothly. My bus arrives on time, and I get to the corner of Central and Taylor without a hitch.

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Photo by James Eaton

There are hours and hours until the race, but already, a seemingly never-ending stream of bodies floods the streets. Despite the size of the crowd, it moves well enough, a testament to the experience, logistical prowess and sheer numbers of the Churchill Downs staff. Since I have plenty of time to take in the various and sundry delights of Derby, I decide to check off one of the few items on my Derby Day To-Do List: grab a bite to eat at Wagner’s.

For those of you who don’t know, Wagner’s is a local institution, operational for nearly a century and just around the corner from the Downs on the corner of Fourth and Central. Treating myself to a cheeseburger, this seems like not only a tasty way to start my day but a necessary one. Fortunately for me, the team at Wagner’s has been around the block. They seem to know how to handle the crowd, and I’m impressed with just how quickly I get a table, eat my food and am sent on my way. If you’re looking for a good way to start your Derby Day festivities, I highly recommend dropping by there. It’s certainly going to become a personal tradition.

With food in my belly, I’m finally ready to step through the front gates, and once I do, I cannot help but feel transported. There’s not really a simple way to describe how the inside of Churchill Downs looks on Derby. It’s as though someone took a cross section of the best parts of Louisville and dabbed it with a coat of fresh paint. It feels like home. Everything is indicative of the city, only nicer, as though you’re expecting company for the world’s biggest dinner party. I pause to reflect on this – taking in the dresses, hats and seersucker suits – and I realize that’s almost exactly what this is: a party.

Any latent tension I had been carrying from earlier in the week dissolves into the bourbon-permeated air. There are no worries at the track. Not today. I realize that the average attendee most likely won’t have the privilege of access to a press pass, and I may never again. It seems like the responsible thing then is to make the most of it.

And so, I wander. After grabbing myself a program, I visit each and every corner of the Downs I can get myself to. No matter where I go, I’m simply taken by the amount of color on display. It’s as though Louisville had taken the time during the lead-up Derby Festival to collect all its resources and deliver a concentrated dose of spring. Men and women alike don violent pastel hues that they wouldn’t dare to piece together any other time of year, and I, for one, never cease to be taken by the outfits throughout the day.

Another abundantly present feature of Derby is the food. Everywhere I look, there is food and lots of it. I step into the comfortable, air-conditioned areas like Millionaires Row, Skye Lounge and the Turf Club, and I see mountains of buffet-style food. Near the front gates and in the infield, there is absolutely no shortage of concession stands serving pure Derby decadence. Once again, I’m reminded it’s a party.

My travels throughout the Downs take me to every corner. I run into some friends in the infield, I grab a celebratory mint julep – complete with a commemorative Derby glass to add to my collection at home – and I even place a bet or two. I’m beginning to feel truly taken by the Derby spirit, and I am loving every minute of it.

At this point, I’ve literally been going down the list of areas that my press pass says I have access to, and it dawns on me that now is the time to visit one of few remaining ones: the barns. Commonly referred to as the backside, getting to the barns takes some doing as I’m sure it’s not a part of the Downs that officials want celebration-crazed Derby attendees having easy access to. I make it, however, without too much hassle.

The barns seem to be the Derby hangout for the various horsemen and their families, and they have their own traditions and festivities while preparing the day’s participating horses. Fortunately, I spent a lot of time around horses in my childhood, so I know my way around a stable. Less fortunately, the weather decides to become violently albeit briefly uncooperative.

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Photo by Hunter Zieske

During a short bout of torrential rain, I seek shelter in the nearest stable and run into Mor Spirit, trainee of legendary horse trainer Bob Baffert and No. 17 in the Derby. Seemingly unperturbed by the storm, Mor Spirit looks at me with vague interest and munches on some hay. He even goes so far as to stick his head out of the stall at me. I know better than to touch him – this horse is probably worth more money than I will ever make – but I do talk to him for a bit. He seemed to appreciate a topic that wasn’t racing.

The rain clears up with a little over an hour to spare, and I make my way to the track, specifically the part by the Winner’s Circle. It seems like the perfect place to watch the main event. I cut through the infield, and I once again marvel at the number of people here. Derby fever seems only to be intensifying with each passing minute.

When I arrive at my destination, I’m early enough to snag a spot directly behind the team for Nyquist, which if you recall Derby 142’s winner, ended up being pretty providential. Before I know it, the participating horses are paraded by, and I feel the anticipation building in a way I never could from watching a TV at a Derby party. I hear a nameless spectator mutter, “Someone’s dreams are about to come true,” and I cannot help but agree.

“My Old Kentucky Home” plays, a song that my grandmother treats with as much sanctity and reverence as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the race begins. They call it the most exciting two minutes in sports, but like most sayings, it was a bon mot that held very little meaning to me. It wasn’t a feeling that I really understood because I had never experienced it. Until now.

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Photo by Amber Chalfin

It’s difficult to explain. The race begins, and it’s over. In that interval, however, there is a palpable sense of focus. You can almost feel each and every individual in the Downs intent on this one event, and it’s pretty inspiring. When I see Nyquist dash by, just before crossing the finish line and the borderline of Derby history, I look at a man who ended up being the winning horse’s trainer, Doug O’Neill. There’s a look of certainty on his face, of ineffable triumph. Since I’m so close, I manage to ask him how he feels. He eyes me up and down, probably glancing at my press pass and media pin, and says simply but nonetheless profoundly, “It’s a good feeling. The best feeling in the world.” And for one brief moment, with the memory of the look on his face fresh in my mind, I completely understand.