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A weeklong party for a two-minute race: On the grounds of Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – I’m sitting directly on the track on the first turn at Churchill Downs. The sand is soft and powdery. It feels like a day at the beach.
And then they’re off for the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby.
My mouth is dry and my heart is thumping as the 18 thoroughbreds gallop by just a horseshoe throw away. The ground shakes and the crowd screams. It is an explosion of colors, bulging eyes, muscles, and hooves.
The “Run for the Roses” is a weeklong party, equal parts hats, fashion, booze, and back-slapping. On Friday and Saturday of Derby week, Churchill Downs will serve 120,000 mint juleps, using 10,000 bottles of bourbon and 1,000 pounds of fresh mint. Nowhere else on earth will you see 150,000 people dressed to the nines, happily drunk, and all wanting to be photographed.
“The greatest two minutes in sports” for me is a six-second photographic burst. Then comes my real race — to get to the winner’s circle in time to smell the roses.
The drinking here is early and often, and it’s classy. Even the Port-A-Potties have sprigs of mint in the urinals.
At 9 a.m., to get in the mood, we sample the local “breakfast of champions.” Down the hatch goes a mint julep, racing past crushed ice and down the backstretch before finishing with a strong kick in the gullet.
It’s a mistake drinking on an empty stomach: the famous Twin Spires of Churchill Downs now seem to be slightly out of focus.
The phrase “gonzo journalism” was coined by a Boston Globe Sunday Magazine editor, Bill Cardoso, who read young Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 piece on the Kentucky Derby titled “The Kentucky Derby is Depraved and Decadent.” It was more about booze, paranoia, and Mace. Thompson didn’t actually see much of the race.
“That whole thing,” wrote Thompson, “will be jammed with people … most of them staggering drunk. It’s a fantastic scene — thousands of people fainting, crying, copulating, trampling each other, and fighting with broken whiskey bottles.”
It isn’t like that at all.
Today, many of them have their $17 mint julep plastic cups stacked high, like a badge of honor, in the infield. In the fancy suites, two-day tickets topped out at $50,000 per ticket, with drinks and food included. There are also $1,000 gold mint julep cups honoring the 50th anniversary of Triple Crown winner Secretariat, the only Derby champion to win in less than two minutes.
After the second race, a horse was carted into an ambulance. It was later euthanized. Seven horses died in advance of the 2023 Kentucky Derby. It’s a big topic in the press room, but not so much among racegoers.
Many said they were horrified and concerned about horse safety. But not enough to leave the party. Cache Lompa of Chico, Calif., said he was sorry that horses died but doesn’t think horse racing is inhumane.
Kentucky Derby spokesman Darren Rogers called it “a statistical anomaly.”
“Anybody who talks to the trainers and the jockeys who are riding on the course, they wouldn’t be running some of the world’s most expensive horses here if they didn’t think it was safe,” he says.
PETA charges that Churchill Downs is a killing field. “They should play ‘Taps’ at the Derby instead of “‘My Old Kentucky Home,’” PETA stated.
Steve Bettleman is the official bugler of Churchill Downs. He has played the call to the post — 15 notes in 33 seconds — tens of thousands of times. He doesn’t even use the keys on his bugle. This is his 28th Derby.
Usually by the third note the crowd is going crazy.
There are some bargains here. Admission to the infield is just $75.
“I don’t mind being an ant in the greatest country in the world,” says Clint Sullens, who is from Monroe, Ga., and sits in the infield with his family. They get a peek at the horses as they dash by, and watch most of the race on a video screen. “When the horses go by on the turf, you can smell them from here. That’s why this is the best seat in the house.”
The track’s iconic Twin Spires, built in 1895, are protected by the National Historic Register. Photographers place 65 remote control cameras under the rail at the finish line to capture the winner in the foreground framed by the Spires.
Even that picture is a gamble. Sometimes a clump of mud kisses the wide-angle lens and the photographer winds up with dirt.
In the Derby, Mage was 13th at the turn, way in the back, eating sand. Venezuelan jockey Javier Castellano was 0 for 15 in previous Derby starts.
He called Mage a little horse with a big heart.
“I never give up,” he says, surrounded by roses. “I always tried to be positive … I took my time.
“I did it. Thank God I did it.”
Minutes later a torrential downpour sends fans scurrying for the exits. Those who stayed were rewarded with a rainbow.
According to a Louisville police spokesman, only four arrests were made.
“These people have been drinking bourbon their whole lives,” says a Kentucky State Trooper. “They’re used to it.”
Read more in this series
- Augusta National Golf Club
- Cameron Indoor Stadium
- Lambeau Field
- Michigan Stadium
- Indianapolis Motor Speedway
- Fenway Park
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.