Kentucky Derby – Louisville, KY
And they’re off!
Fittingly, our going away party before we left on this trip was horse racing themed. Seeing as how the Kentucky Derby was very high, if not on top, of our “must see” list, we were very excited to include the race on our official itinerary. Throw in the “racing” and “send off” themes of both our departure and of horse racing, and a derby themed party was a perfect fit. And who doesn’t like a good themed party, right? We had mint juleps, bourbon balls, big hats, and some horse racing action set up on an outside TV.
The outpouring of love and support from our family and friends that day was matched only by the excitement that we had for the opportunity to attend quintessential and iconic American sporting events like the Kentucky Derby. We unfortunately couldn’t attend EVERY major US sporting event during the year, so we were especially excited about the handful of them that we were able to include on our itinerary. And when one of the first questions that anyone asks is: “What event are you most excited about?”, more often than not the answer was the Kentucky Derby.
Around the first turn…
We’ve already experienced and covered some really big sporting events during our journey. A Green Bay Packers game, the Daytona 500, the Final Four, and The Masters to name a few. And with each of those events, we already had an expectation of what to expect before walking into the event. We’d seen each of them on TV multiple times, and even had first hand accounts from friends and family. Expectations were built, and as we wrote about after each of those events, sometimes those expectations were met, sometimes they were exceeded, and sometimes the event fell short. With sporting events this popular and well known, it’s hard not to have an entirely different experience that the one that you’ve seen so many times before on TV.
And the Kentucky Derby was no different.
Even though I’m not a horse racing enthusiast and have only been to the races a handful of times, I am indeed American and therefore consistently watch the Kentucky Derby. Before this week I probably couldn’t tell you the precise differences between a trifecta and a box exacta bet, but after perusing the list of past Derby winners I found that the name of each and every winning horse since 1997 rang a bell in my memory bank. I might not have watched each race since 1997, but because of its impact on American culture, each winning name resonated with me.
Although the first running of the Kentucky Derby was in 1875, it didn’t gain national prominence until 1930 when Gallant Fox became the second horse to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes in a row. Sportswriter Charles Hatton brought the phrase “Triple Crown” into American usage, which fueled public interest in the possibility of a “superhorse” that could win all three races in one year. Two years after the term was coined, the date of the Kentucky Derby was changed to the first Saturday in May to allow for a specific schedule for the Triple Crown races. Since 1931, the order of Triple Crown races has been the Kentucky Derby first, followed by the Preakness Stakes and then the Belmont Stakes. The three races continued to offer the largest purse and because the Kentucky Derby came first, it garnered the most attention.
Here they come down the back stretch…
The Kentucky Derby is also well known for its traditions which play a large role in the Derby atmosphere. The mint julep is the traditional beverage of the race, which can be served in an ice-frosted silver julep cup but now comes in a souvenir Churchill Downs glass. As most of you I’m sure already know, men and women tend to dress a bit fancier for the Derby, with women adding large, elaborate hats as a must have accessory. It has come to the point where seeing a woman dressed up with a large fancy hat immediately evokes Kentucky Derby related inquiries.
In addition to the fashion related culture, there are also traditions based on where you are actually viewing the event. The infield for instance is well known for its “party” atmosphere. General admission tickets grant you access to the infield, where it is almost impossible to actually see a horse on the track. Infield attendees persevere through that seemingly inconsequential fact and instead party with reckless abandon. By contrast, “Millionaire’s Row” is home to the expensive box seats that attract the rich and famous, where since 1924 one can clearly see the University of Louisville Marching Band play Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” as the horses are paraded before the grandstands.
At halfway in Derby 138…
Much like our going away party, the rich history and traditions of the Kentucky Derby have morphed into a “theme” for people to use for parties or gatherings. The juxtaposition of both the extremely glamorous decorum and then the inebriated low-brow infield scene appeals to every walk of life. And it’s clear that part of human nature is to enjoy life thoroughly, aided by alcohol while looking as good as they can. The Kentucky Derby itself feels like one big dress up party, with 90% of the people in attendance teetering that fine line between “actually being rich and fancy” and “looking like you’re playing dress up”.
And much like the Packers game or The Masters, the venue itself had just as much to do with the experience as did the sporting event. As seen in Green Bay and Augusta, the area surrounding Churchill Downs in Louisville is unlike anything you would’ve expected after watching countless Kentucky Derbies. There’s no horse stables or large mansions where you’d imagine that big-hat-wearing women live, but like most American cities the scenery outside of the racetrack was populated with strip malls and blue-collar homes. Walk through the gates of Churchill Downs though, and you’re in horse racing Disneyland.
As the Derby field turns for home…
A fun fact that casual fans and/or horse racing novices might not know is that the Kentucky Derby race isn’t the only thing going on at Churchill Downs that day. In fact, there’s a total of 13 races on Saturday (The Derby being the 11th race of the day) and 12 races the day before on what is known as the Kentucky Oaks. Races differ by length covered, age and gender of the horses competing, as well as if they run on the dirt or turf track. With 25 races between two days, there’s plenty of opportunity to see quality horse racing up close and personal. Many opted to pony up near the paddock where the jockeys and horses met up before each race prior to heading out to the track in order to get a great view of the horses. And of course with wager windows and machines no more than 3 feet away from wherever you are at any given time, a small wager on a race can make watching it even more exciting.
As for the 2012 Kentucky Derby, a notably strong field of 20 thoroughbreds raced in front of a record attendance of 165,307. And the crowd certainly made themselves heard as excitement continued to build during the entire race, rising like audible waves before finally exploding into an enormous roar as the horses came down the final stretch.
And down the stretch they come!
During the final furlong, I’ll Have Another overtook Bodemeister to win by one and a half lengths, becoming the first Kentucky Derby winner out of the #19 post, and first win for Derby rookie Mario Gutierrez. The mixture of screams, cheers, and groans from the crowd melded together into one giant noise that burst as the horses crossed the finish line. The excitement boils over as the “fastest two minutes in sports” comes to an end, as its difficult not to let out some kind of audible sound as you watch something so exciting.
In the end we’ve often evaluated whether or not some of the sporting events that we’ve attended have met our expectations. Each time we’ve attended an iconic American sporting event, it’s been much different than we’ve expected it to be. Some exceeded expectations, some met, some underwhelmed, but each of them was different. With the case of the Kentucky Derby, it was a mixed bag. Clearly not as refined and dignified as it seems on TV, but the amount of exciting horse racing was much more than we bargained for. The excitement in the crowd during the finish of the Kentucky Derby is unlike any other excitement in sports. It’s something that has to be experienced in person to be truly appreciated.
Which has basically become the theme of our trip. When we left, we really didn’t know for sure what we were getting into. Of course we’d been to sporting events before, but not so many varieties, and definitely not as many major events. Although the outcome doesn’t match what we’ve been expecting each time, it’s still exciting. Each new experience or new event is shaping how we look at not only our lives but the culture that we live in. And just like in real life, you’ve got to be there in person to truly experience it.
Watch the 2012 Kentucky Derby race video: