Escaping The Derby

Blame it on the hat. The Derby Hat, the quintessential accessory for a Louisville Lady, was mocking me. Corporate Kitten sauntered around the bedroom wearing it with nothing else but a pair of Farangamo’s and pretended to wave at the winning jockeys, as if she were the Belle of the Ball.

I contemplated explaining that with her terrible seats she’d be so far out of sight of an actual horse on Derby Day that she might as well get a pony ride at the Chow Wagon, but it seemed like sour grapes.

The fact that I wouldn’t be her date bridled my ego like a cheese grater. All this Derby insanity was griping me with a desperate need for escape. It’d been 12 years since I’d been in the same time zone on this day, and the frenzy of Derby oversaturation was beginning to sink into my bones.

Was it the hats or this schizophrenic April weather? My enthusiasm for the festivities was waning. What do the other citizens of this town who aren’t at Churchill Downs or renting their lawns out as parking lots do on this insane weekend? Does the trample of hooves fill you with a need to participate, extricate, or inebriate?

Derby Fever Immunity is the condition of an old-school Louisvillian. When I left this town, many moons ago, it was a week-long celebration. It has now begun to become a brand unto itself, consuming the better part of a month and most of your liver.

For $600, I could get Turf Club Tickets with my sister and her husband, but I didn’t want to run the risk of running into my recently extinguished flame with her date while I was forlornly thumbing through my bets and stirring Woodford Reserve with a lonely swizzle stick. It was too much to bear.

There is something very lonely about being single for Derby. The whole town was a huge party, but I felt uninvited. There was no seersucker for me, no gathering of the Kentucky Colonels (of which half the state and myself are members), no jubilation at the betting window. The taste of Bourbon was sour in my mouth.

Derby, for all its fanfare, presents a particular problem for residents. If you aren’t going to the track, you might start noticing that everyone, everywhere, is drunk.  And good luck getting a cab. You can’t drink and drive but it won’t be a problem because you won’t actually be driving as much as sitting very still in horrible traffic.

I needed refuge. I called an old girlfriend in Chicago.

It turns out she was not going to the Derby, so I booked a very cheap flight the next day.

Ten days later, I was fighting my way through the crowd at Standiford Field. While the rest of the country was trying like hell to get in to this town, I was getting out. The place was overrun with drunks, sucking down Woodford Reserve and slapping each other on the back at the bar. I hurried on, hoping one of them wouldn’t mistake me for that guy from high school that deflowered his sister on prom night and take a swing.

The security line was as brief as the flight. O’Hare was eerily quiet. I was even able to get a suite for a discount in the Drake at the last minute.

My date and I had a great time. We visited museums, took architecture tours, and ate in the finest Chicago steak houses. Half the town seemed empty. Everyone else in Chicago, it seems, was cramming into Louisville for the Big Event.

We watched the race from the bar at the Coq d’Or. It was strange, watching those little horses on the television. It was peaceful. No long lines, no drunken arguments, no shirtless college guys with a potato cannon in the Infield. Just good food, good wine, good company, and most importantly… no hats.

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