A Kentuckian’s First Derby

What was I doing here? Finally visiting Churchill Downs for a race on this particular day made me feel like a New Yorker who had never bothered visiting Times Square until New Year’s Eve. The day of the Kentucky Derby is said to be a madhouse of people dressed in a combination of whites and pastels with exuberant hats. I was told there would be poor folks pretending to be classy and rich folks pretending to be classy as well. There I was, along with everyone else, pretending…

DSC_4752I was just glad to look as if I were from another time, thanks to the help of a thrift store like The Nitty Gritty. My plaid blazer, white fedora, and navy-blue tie with the shape of our state patterned on it (thanks to something I’d purchased at WHY Louisville years back) was the right kind of guard necessary to belong in a massive crowd gathered for an entire day of loudness, drinking and commotion – all dedicated to a couple minutes more significant than any other in the sport of horse racing.

Why had I never done this? I’ve lived in Louisville since I was 5 years old, and I’d never seen a horse race in person. Well, it’s no secret to those who know me that I’m not into sports. The extent of my experience with our city’s beloved tradition was being in someone’s home most years, far away from the Downs, where folks grilled out, drank and stared at the television. Some years, I saw Derby coverage capturing people drenched in rainy, muddy conditions, and I couldn’t imagine wanting to be there at all.

julepUnquestionably, the weather on Derby 141 made a wonderful contribution of comfort to the good folks at the Downs. A blue sky and breezy 80 degrees can bring optimism to any crowd. I really put that theory to the test, when I visited the infield, the place with the most notorious reputation at this annual event. I was almost disappointed by how tame and respectful the crowd was. When the national anthem was being sung, people started shouting at the DJ to turn off the dance music. All around the Downs, vendors sold barbecue sandwiches and turkey legs, while men walked around peddling delicious mint juleps in collectible Derby glasses.

Around the wagering booths, people stood in line with knowledge of the horses running the 141st Kentucky Derby, which I had not accumulated. No, I didn’t place any bets. What really struck me about this day was seeing a common preparedness in nearly everyone there. They had picked a horse. They had found something specific to wear, with a plan for how they would watch the race, whether it was from a private section or a lawn chair planted in the infield lawn with that mammoth 4K screen in sight.

infield3My experience was a surreal one, providing all the angles one is likely to witness, when attending this fashionable gathering. More than the races, I was curious of people’s enjoyment. Whenever a horse was making its way to the finish line, my eyes tended to drift toward the crowd, going bonkers with emotional release from the tension built during the race. You get to watch human beings go wild while the animal on the track is performing a task of intense discipline.

My trusty 35 mm camera always comes in handy during people-watching events – and the Kentucky Derby is easily the best one of these I’ve experienced in years. What I still love about shooting on film, is not knowing if the essence of a moment is accurately captured until it’s been processed at a later time. That’s generally how I feel about venturing into a new environment – especially one as different as this. I don’t know what it meant to me until I’ve allowed the experience to develop.

Now, all I can think is, Wow! I was there! I was walking around in the gorgeous construction that is Churchill Downs on its most important day, where every aspect of its vast space was being utilized. I got to feel the energy of a crowd from all walks of life during that moment of American Pharoah’s big win. And hours later, I got to fall into a deep sleep.

Whew. VT