LOUISVILLE —The weather forecasters were wrong, thank goodness.
The sun was shining bright on a perfect spring afternoon as a record crowd of 164,858 stumbled over the words to My Old Kentucky Home before seeing Animal Kingdom win his first race on dirt to take the 137th Kentucky Derby.
Brief periods of rain earlier in the day didn’t faze the biggest Derby crowd in history. The field was wide open, and, as always, horses were just part of the attraction. The Derby is a big party, a peerless networking opportunity and a colorful pageant of women in tight dresses and bodacious hats.
For hours leading up to the so-called greatest two minutes in sports, Kentucky’s captains of horseflesh and industry wined and dined those lucky enough to receive invitations from them.
“It’s such a selling opportunity for the state,” said Alltech founder and President Pearse Lyons. He and his wife, Deirdra, sat on Millionaire’s Row with John Petterson, senior vice president of Tiffany & Co., who said construction of his company’s new plant in Lexington is on schedule for completion in July.
“The whole state of Kentucky has been good to us,” said Petterson, attending his first Derby. “This is a wonderful place to do business.”
Executives from Mexico and India were among those being entertained by state officials hungry for investment.
Proeza of Monterey, Mexico, owns three automobile parts factories in Kentucky that employ 1,200 people. “We hope to increase employment,” said CEO Enrique Zambrano, who was loving his first Derby. “We come from a family that loves horses, and this is an experience.”
Across the table from Zambrano was Rewant Ruia, director of Essar of Mumbai, India. “I think it’s a fabulous event,” said Ruia, who said his conglomerate employs 10,000 people in North America, including coal miners in Kentucky. “To be honest, I did not expect the Derby to be so big.”
Across the track and far below the luxury suites, the infield crowd had arrived early to set up tents against the predicted rain. They partied the day away, progressing from $7 breakfast Budweisers to $10 mint juleps.
“The atmosphere, the people, the party,” said Ken Keske of Charlotte, N.C., when I asked why he keeps coming back every year. His Derby outfit included a furry viking helmet.
Nearby, Karolyn Cook of New Jersey and two girlfriends from New York and North Carolina were sporting lovely dresses and elegant hats. They sat on a blanket in the infield, snacking on potato chips. “My mother is stationed at Fort Knox, so this was the thing to do,” Cook said.
Tim Rask came from Iowa City, Iowa, for his seventh Derby, his fifth wearing a bowler hat topped with a tall arrangement of red roses that required almost perfect posture. “All that finishing school paid off,” he joked.
Rask keeps coming “because it’s the greatest time to be had in the country,” he said. “It’s great fun to make a fool of yourself once a year.”
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who took office in January, was enjoying his first year as Derby host. “People love coming here and they all leave with a smile on their face,” he said. “It’s fun to be part of that.”
When I saw Fischer, he was shaking hands on Millionaire’s Row and introducing people to Lt. Gen. Ben Freakley, who is overseeing a big expansion and mission change at Ft. Knox that in the past year has expanded the base’s payroll by $45 million.
“You see these beautiful ladies in these fabulous hats and then a dude in a T-shirt,” said Freakley, who was attending his first Derby. “This is America. We’re all celebrating what we are as a country. It’s pretty neat.”
It’s also a pretty neat day to be a Kentuckian, said Central Bank President Luther Deaton.
“It showcases Kentucky and what a great place we live,” he said. “We’re the luckiest people going.”