From cheap seats to expensive suites, a picture-perfect Derby

May 2, 2015
Fans watched races from the Jockey Suites balconies at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Fans watched races from the Jockey Suites balconies. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

A picture-perfect spring day brought a record crowd of 170,513 people to Churchill Downs for the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby. And what a spectacle they saw.

The most important two-minutes of the day belonged to American Pharoah, the favorite who won the $2 million mile-and-a-quarter race for 3-year-olds.

But there was so much more to see: Women in tight dresses, plunging necklines and hats that could qualify as architecture. Men wore either the finest or most garish suit they could find, often topped with a straw hat.

As always, it was a colorful sea of humanity, with everyone doing their best to have a good time. And, for many I talked to, it was their first Kentucky Derby.

“We’ve been having a lot of fun,” said Graham Yost, the Canadian screenwriter who created and is executive producer of Justified, the hit television series set in Kentucky, which just finished its six-season run in April.

Yost and his wife, Connie, were wined-and-dined in Lexington earlier in the week, but still weren’t quite prepared for their first Kentucky Derby.

“We had heard about the hats, but until you see them… ” Yost said. “Kentucky has become a huge part of our lives.”

“This is one of the best spectacles of all,” added singer Mac Davis, who was sharing the Yost’s table on Millionaire’s Row.

Far below the celebrities, in folding chairs beside an infield fence, Susan and Bob Syphax were experiencing their first Derby, too.

Seven months ago, they moved from California to Pulaski County and decided this was the year. So they dressed in their finest outfits and plucked down $60 each for general-admission tickets.

“I always wanted to go to the Derby,” she said. “I didn’t care where we sat; I just wanted to be here.”

James Roberts of Grand Junction, Colo., and six of his buddies from around the country flew into Louisville this week for their first Derby — and an early bachelor party before his Aug. 1 wedding.

“We came to see the race and hopefully get me to my wedding eventually,” Roberts said. “We’re having a blast. Now we’re ready to win some money on horses.”

“It’s been on our bucket list,” said Lee Vigil, who was here from Albuquerque, N.M., with his wife, Stella. “This is our 41st anniversary, so we thought we could come celebrate it at the 141st Derby.”

Cathy Dewberry and Norline Simpson of Dayton, Ohio, spent much of their first Derby wandering the infield and photographing other women’s hats.

“What brought us here was the hats,” Simpson said from beneath a big turquoise and white one of her own.

“We love every bit of it,” Simpson added. “We will be back.”

High above the infield in the Jockey Suites complex, corporate executives used the day to entertain guests and clients in high style.

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray started the day in the suite rented by his family firm, Gray Construction, but he quickly started roaming Churchill Downs with Jamie Emmons, his chief of staff.

“This is a day when you can have a chance to quickly see a lot of people who have influence in Lexington and Kentucky,” Gray said. “It’s a long day, but a beneficial one.”

Derby day was also a good payday for thousands of service workers and vendors at the track.

Darrin Hildebrand of Sandusky, Ohio, was making and selling hand-rolled cigars for $15 each about as fast as he could roll them. Aaron Kluttz of Baltimore and his son, Luke, each got done and, after long draws, pronounced them good.

“We’ll go through 1,000 by the time it’s all said and done,” Hildebrand said.

The warm, sunny weather also meant brisk business for mint julep vendor Rob Hawkins. Three hours before the Derby, he had already sold a dozen cases.

“It’s never a bad day at the Derby,” he said as he rushed back for another case. “But when you have weather like this, everybody wants a drink.”

Dining room patrons on the fifth floor of the Jockey Suites line up for food at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Dining room patrons on the fifth floor of the Jockey Suites line up for food. Photo by Tom Eblen

Darrin Hindebrand of Sandusky, Ohio, lights a cigar he just made for Aaron Kluttz of Baltimore at the 141st Kentucky Derby on Saturday.  Hildebrand, who learned how to make cigars 22 years ago, later made one for Kluttz's son, Luke, left. HIldebrand said he would end up making about 1,000 cigars at Derby and Oaks, which sold for $15 each. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Darrin Hindebrand of Sandusky, Ohio, lights a cigar he made for Aaron Kluttz of Baltimore at the 141st Kentucky Derby on Saturday. Hildebrand, who learned how to make cigars 22 years ago, later made one for Kluttz’s son, Luke, left. HIldebrand said he would end up making about 1,000 cigars at Derby and Oaks, which sold for $15 each. Photo by Tom Eblen

Big-hatted spectators gather in the paddock at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Big-hatted spectators gather in the paddock. Photo by Tom Eblen


Fan photos from early in a beautiful Kentucky Derby day

May 2, 2015
Bob and Susan Syphax moved to Science Hill, Ky., from California seven months ago and were excited about seeing their first Kentucky Derby on Saturday. "I always wanted to go to the Derby," she said. "I don't care where I sit. I just wanted to be here." They sat in the infield, watching a big-screen television.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Bob and Susan Syphax moved to Science Hill, Ky., from California seven months ago and were excited about seeing their first Kentucky Derby on Saturday. “I always wanted to go to the Derby,” she said. “I don’t care where I sit. I just wanted to be here.” They sat in the infield, watching a big-screen television. Photo by Tom Eblen

Ohio State University students, left to right, Daniel LeHue, Elliott O'Flynn, Nicholas Kobernik and Kara Neff cheered for an undercard race in the infield Saturday before the 141st Kentucky Derby. This was their first Derby Day at Churchill Downs.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Ohio State University students, left to right, Daniel LeHue, Elliott O’Flynn, Nicholas Kobernik and Kara Neff cheered for an undercard race in the infield Saturday before the 141st Kentucky Derby. This was their first Derby Day at Churchill Downs. Photo by Tom Eblen

Damon Williams, left, of Stockton, Calif., and Zach Miller, right, of Austin, Texas, studied the racing program Saturday with James Roberts of Grand Junction, Colo. Williams and Miller were among six friends of Robertson from around the country who gathered in Louisville for his early bachelor party. He is getting married Aug. 1. It was the first time any of them had been to the Kentucky Derby.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Damon Williams, left, of Stockton, Calif., and Zach Miller, right, of Austin, Texas, studied the racing program Saturday with James Roberts of Grand Junction, Colo. Williams and Miller were among six friends of Robertson from around the country who gathered in Louisville for his early bachelor party. He is getting married Aug. 1. It was the first time any of them had been to the Kentucky Derby. Photo by Tom Eblen

Soldiers assisted with security in the infield at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Soldiers assisted with security in the infield at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday. Photo by Tom Eblen

Cathy Dewberry, left, and Norline Simpson of Dayton, Ohio, attended their first Kentucky Derby on Saturday in the infield. "We're all about the hats," Simpson said. "But we love every bit of it. We'll be back."  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Cathy Dewberry, left, and Norline Simpson of Dayton, Ohio, attended their first Kentucky Derby on Saturday in the infield. “We’re all about the hats,” Simpson said. “But we love every bit of it. We’ll be back.” Photo by Tom Eblen

Fans began gathering in the infield early for the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Fans began gathering in the infield early for the 141st Kentucky Derby. Photo by Tom Eblen

Soldiers assisted with security in the infield at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Soldiers assisted with security in the infield at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday. Photo by Tom Eblen

Infield fans watched undercard races before the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Infield fans watched undercard races before the 141st Kentucky Derby. Photo by Tom Eblen


A case of Pappy helps add glitz to Derby wine auction and gala

April 28, 2015

The Lexington Cancer Foundation will have its 10th annual Kentucky Bluegrass Wine Auction & Derby Gala at Donamire Farm on April 30. This photo was taken at the 2014 event. Photo Provided

The Lexington Cancer Foundation will have its 10th Kentucky Bluegrass Wine Auction & Derby Gala at Donamire Farm on Thurday. This photo was taken at the 2014 event. Photo Provided

 

A bottle of hard-to-find Pappy Van Winkle has become a hit at many Central Kentucky charity auctions, sometimes fetching bids of $1,000 or more.

So here is one reason the Lexington Cancer Foundation‘s Kentucky Bluegrass Wine Auction & Derby Gala is one of the state’s fanciest Derby parties: It will auction an age-mixed case of a dozen bottles of the high-priced bourbon, plus a limited-edition Scottish crystal decanter filled with even more.

Kristi Martin, the foundation’s executive director, wouldn’t say who donated the Pappy or how much she thinks it might sell for. But I would expect several five-figure bids from the 400 guests Thursday night. After all, tickets to this sold-out gala at Donamire Farm cost $700 per couple.

Other auction items may bring even more than the Pappy. There are University of Kentucky basketball season tickets; a U2 concert in Chicago; a breeding season with an Ashford Stud sire; a Breeders Cup package; golfing at Pebble Beach; and luxury trips to Rome, Argentina, Mexico, Napa Valley, Las Vegas and Wyoming.

The wine auction gala has become a popular fundraiser for the foundation, which by the end of this year will have made more than $3 million in grants and donations to cancer-fighting organizations throughout Kentucky since 2004, Martin said.

At least half the attendees will come from out-of-state, she said, including a large Silicon Valley contingent that includes Kevin Systrom, the founder and CEO of Instagram. Graham Yost, creator of the hit TV series Justified, also will be there.

But compared to some other Derby parties, this isn’t a star-studded event — unless you are a wine connoisseur.

“Some high-level groups are coming in now, and that’s wonderful,” Martin said. “But what we have found out over the years during Derby week a lot of celebrities want to be paid to come, and that’s something we would never do.”

Brenda Rice, the wife of Lexington attorney Brent Rice, started the foundation in 2004 after a family member was diagnosed with cancer. She talked with friends she had volunteered with for other causes over the years and discovered many of them also had been touched by the disease.

“I thought, how can we make the biggest impact?” Rice said. “I knew what these women were capable of when their hearts were in it.”

The foundation is run by a 50-member board of women volunteers, with help from another 50 “junior” board members. Each year since 2005, the foundation has made an average of more than $280,000 in grants to a variety of hospitals, researchers and cancer-related programs throughout Kentucky.

The private foundation receives no state or federal funds, but has attracted a long list of corporate and individual sponsors, whose donations significantly cut the cost of putting on the wine auction and gala.

A key to the event, Martin said, has been its ability to attract top vintners. Each year, more than a dozen wineries spend about $50,000 each from their marketing budgets to participate. This year’s vintner chair is Will Harlan of the Harlan Estates family in Napa Valley. He now has his own label, The Mascot.

“The event has grown over the years as word has gotten out,” Martin said. “The level of wineries that we’re able to attract is phenomenal.”

Festivities begin Wednesday with six private dinners for top sponsors at foundation patrons’ homes. Vintners have a trade fair for area restaurateurs and wine merchants Thursday morning to promote their products, which will be served that evening at the gala with food catered by The Apiary.

After a Friday breakfast at Keeneland, guests are offered tours of horse farms and Woodford Reserve Distillery before dinner for vintners and top sponsors at the Iroquois Hunt Club. For those who want to attend the Derby on Saturday, the foundation helps them arrange to buy tickets.

“They get a wonderful experience of Kentucky during the Derby season,” Martin said. “And they help us raise money for our mission.”

The foundation’s other major fundraiser this year will be the fourth annual Roll for the Cure, a bicycle tour Aug. 22 in partnership with the Bluegrass Cycling Club.


Derby Day at Keeneland: all that was missing was live horses

May 3, 2014

140503Keeneland-DerbyTE0124Derby Day at Keeneland was a laid-back affair. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Billy Hargis of Danville got to Keeneland early on Kentucky Derby Day to stake out a bench and start studying the program in the hope of picking a winner.

“I’ve been coming to Keeneland for a long time, since I was 16,” said Hargis, 64, adding that it is his favorite place to be on Derby Day because of the family atmosphere and smaller crowd.

“I went to Louisville once,” he said. “All I saw was a horse’s tail.”

Before long Saturday, Hargis had plenty of company. A picture-perfect day brought 19,344 people to the Lexington racetrack, which had everything a Kentucky Derby fan needed — except actual horses.

The horses were on TV screens, including the big one across the track in Keeneland’s infield. Spectators gathered in the stands and on the plaza benches below, picnicked in the paddock and tailgated in tents and RVs outside the gates at perhaps the world’s largest Kentucky Derby party outside Churchill Downs.

Jeff and Lisa Kayes have been coming to Kentucky from the Buffalo, N.Y., area each first Saturday in May for 18 years to catch the Derby action. Only four of those years were actually spent at the Derby in Louisville.

“We’ve done that; the riff-raff in the infield gets old,” Jeff Kayes said of Churchill Downs. “This is more laid-back.”

Keeneland has long allowed people to gather at the track for Derby, but it started making a bigger event of it in 1995. Now, as many as 20,000 fans come each year, wearing fancy hats and toting picnic supplies.

There was a hat contest, children’s activities and plenty of beer, mint juleps, other refreshments and souvenirs for the adults. For $5 admission, it was quite a show for both horse fans and people-watchers.

Debbie and Bill Viney of Georgetown set up a family picnic in the paddock with son, Tom, who lives in Louisville, and his daughter, Allie, 10. They were all dressed up, enjoying the sunshine and games of corn hole until it was time to eat.

“This is great,” Tom Viney said. “I’ll come to Keeneland seven days out of seven vs. going to Churchill.”

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Kentucky Derby’s little sister has her own style

May 3, 2014

140502KyOaks0020A giant, new video screen at Churchill Downs emphasizes the feeling that the 140th Kentucky Oaks on Friday is like one big reality television show.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

LOUISVILLE — Whenever friends from out-of-state complain about how Kentucky Derby tickets are expensive and hard to get, I tell them about the Kentucky Oaks.

Both races have been run for 140 years, but until a few years ago, the Friday event for 3-year-old fillies was a secret Kentuckians kept to themselves.

The Oaks is no longer a secret. The crowd of 113,071 that saw the favorite, Untapable, win by 4½ lengths Friday, was the third-largest ever. But the Oaks is still a less costly, less crowded and less crazy day at the races.

Neither Oaks nor Derby may be the same again, though, thanks to Churchill Downs’ newest addition. The Big Board is a 90-foot-wide video screen that rises 170 feet above the backside and is visible throughout the track. When the sound is cranked up on its 750 speakers, the multimedia experience can almost rival the human and equine circus that surrounds it.

Several months ago, my younger daughter called wanting advice about getting Derby tickets. Shannon lives in New York now but was coming home to meet up with Lisa Currie, her pen-pal of 20 years, who was flying in from Australia.

Lisa wanted to go to the Derby, but was easily persuaded that the Oaks might be more fun. It is the same with Australia’s famous Melbourne Cup, she said. She and other locals prefer to go on one of the preliminary race days.

Walking around Friday, I found a lot of people who have discovered the Oaks’ charm.

“I like the Oaks better, although we’ll be here tomorrow, too,” said Denise Needham of Long Island, N.Y., who was here for her fourth Oaks-Derby weekend. “It’s just as much fun, but less crowded. And it’s for a good cause.”

She was referring to Churchill Downs’ partnership with the Susan G. Komen organization, which has made Oaks Day an annual celebration of breast cancer survival and awareness.

Before the big race, there is a parade down the track of breast cancer survivors chosen from all over the country. Almost all of them wore pink. But, anymore, almost everyone wears pink to the Oaks.

“I get to wear pink and not get judged,” Rickey Spanish of Des Moines, Iowa, said with a laugh. He was wearing a pink shirt, pants and feather boa, and his Iowa friends were similarly attired.

“Today is all flash,” Spanish said. “Tomorrow, I’ll just wear a regular old suit to Derby.”

All of that pink has helped make the Oaks as good a people-watching event as Derby Day.

“The horses are OK, but the people are more interesting,” said Kitty McKune of Louisville, who stood people-watching as her husband, Mike, filmed the paddock crowd with a small video camera.

“Derby weekend brings out the best in everybody,” said Mike McKune, who shocked his wife by buying and learning how to tie a bow tie to go with this suit.

Frequently overcast skies and temperatures that barely broke into the 60s caused many men to lose their suit coats to women who draped them over their fancy dresses. Gusty winds had many women keeping at least one hand on their big hats.

“It was supposed to be warm!” said Katie Daniel of Louisville, who walked through the paddock wearing Daniel Nusbaum’s suit coat.

The weather definitely put a dent in beer sales, said Andre Williams, who said he has been hawking cold ones at Churchill Downs on Derby weekends for more than 10 years.

“They keep saying it’s too cold to drink cold beer,” Williams said, noting that his fellow vendors selling champagne and vodka “Lily” cocktails seemed to be doing better. “But it will pick up some the later the day goes.”

Judging by all of the crushed beer cans I walked over after the big race, he was right. By Saturday morning, though, they will all be gone so an even bigger, crazier crowd can leave many more beer cans. Derby Day is supposed to be much warmer.

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Kentucky Derby infield tamer than my first one, but still a wild party

May 4, 2013

130504KyDerby-TE0033

 Patrick Just of Louisville takes a turn on an improvised water slide during an afternoon downpour in the infield at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby day. “You don’t do Derby,” he said. “Derby does you.”  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Like many people, I attended my first Kentucky Derby as a college student in the infield. Except I was an intern for the Associated Press, assigned to write a feature about one of the world’s biggest and wildest parties.

It was 1979, when Spectacular Bid won the 105th Derby, then the Preakness and fell just short of the Triple Crown. But that’s not what I remember most.

Derby Day was sunny and hot, and the infield was a “boiling sea of people”, just as Hunter S. Thompson described it in his famous 1970 essay, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved. Alcohol flowed freely and, as the afternoon wore on, many a young woman became separated from her clothes. As I wrote in my story that day, the infield was a place where “you are liable to see almost anything — except perhaps the Kentucky Derby.”

I have been to 16 Derbys since then, and each year the infield seems to get smaller and tamer, even as the admission price has risen from $10 to $40. But the 139th Derby was proof that the infield is still quite a party — even on a day like Saturday.

For most of the day, it poured rain, but that didn’t keep people away. The Derby Day crowd was more than 151,000.

The wet weather wasn’t a problem for big-ticket Derby patrons, who enjoyed catered food high and dry in enclosed luxury suites above the track. Saturday was a good day to be rich or famous — or a guest of someone who was.

Outdoor grandstand seats were problematic. But the infield crowd just got wet. Very wet. Not that anyone seemed to mind.

The steady downpour quickly turned the infield into swamp. In the past, that wouldn’t have been a big problem. Although umbrellas have always been banned, infield regulars usually come equipped with large picnic tents.

But this year, citing security concerns in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, Churchill Downs banned tents and coolers. Still, many people brought tarps that became makeshift tents, attached to the chain-link fence along the track’s edge or propped up on folding chairs. A few people managed to sneak in forbidden tent poles and stakes.

“I knew people would get creative,” said John Asher, the Churchill Downs spokesman.

While some in the infield tried to find shelter, many others didn’t bother. People walked around, drank and danced in the rain and mud.

“You’ve got to do it,” said Cathy Hanrahan of Louisville, who has been to six or seven Derbys and was enjoying this one dancing in the infield with friends while wearing a hat that looked like a lamp shade. “You can dry out tomorrow.”

Still, even on a dry day, the Derby infield isn’t what it used to be.

For one thing, the infield is a lot smaller. A big chunk of the real estate was taken in 1985 when Churchill Downs built the turf track inside the dirt oval. The whole front side of the infield is now taken by two-story enclosed and tented luxury boxes. And, each year, more and more vendor tents compete with fans for space.

The infield also is a lot tamer. Although it is harder to smuggle in booze, Churchill Downs makes it very easy to buy alcohol, from beer to mint juleps to champagne. But a multitude of cops keep patrons’ good times from getting out of hand.

There is little nudity anymore, even on a warmer, drier Derby Day than we had this year. Before Churchill Downs’ most recent renovations, the Herald-Leader’s work room was next to a room where Louisville police with high-powered binoculars scanned the infield looking for nudity and other misbehavior.

But none of this seems to have stopped the infield crowd from having a memorably good time, year after year.

“I heard it’s the most wild time you could find,” said Jesse Jerzewski, 26, of Buffalo, N.Y. “And I’m not disappointed yet.”

Jerzewski’s first Derby was doubling as his brother’s bachelor party. They and their poncho-clad friends were especially fond of mint juleps.

A big crowd of young people gathered around a huge plastic sheet, which became a well-lubricated water slide in the heavy afternoon rain. They dared each other to give it a try. Patrick Just of Louisville was among those who accepted the challenge.

“You don’t do Derby,” he said. “Derby does you.”

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Marketing campaign hopes to attract millennials to horse racing

April 9, 2013

130408HorseBus0020

America’s Best Racing’s ambassadors, left to right, are Hallie Hardy, John Cox, Jose Contreras, Mary Frances Dale, Chip McGaughey and Victoria Garofalo. The bus tour began in March at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, and ends at the Breeders’ Cup in Los Angeles in November. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

The centerpiece of The Jockey Club’s $5 million marketing campaign to attract more young fans to Thoroughbred racing rolled into Lexington this week.

A brightly painted hospitality bus with six horse-racing “ambassadors” between ages 22 and 27 is on a national tour. The tour began in March at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, and will end in November at the Breeders’ Cup outside Los Angeles.

Before leaving Lexington for Louisville on Sunday, the bus will be at The Red Mile on Wednesday for the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers Club meeting, at Thursday Night Live at Cheapside with some well-known jockeys, in the parking lot of Tin Roof on South Limestone on Friday night, and at Keeneland on Friday and Saturday.

Kip Cornett, president of Lexington-based Cornett Integrated Marketing Solutions, said the campaign grew out of a McKinsey & Co. study that The Jockey Club commissioned three years ago.

It concluded that one of racing’s biggest opportunities to increase the fan base was by doing more with special events, such as the Kentucky Derby. The research showed that 1.8 million people ages 18 to 34 watch the Derby on television, yet they pay little attention to Thoroughbred racing most of the year, Cornett said.

So the Jockey Club created a strategy similar to ESPN’s GameDay events to reach young people. That included an advertising campaign; a website, Followhorseracing.com; and the bus with six ambassadors chosen from 150 videotaped applications.

Three of the ambassadors are from Central Kentucky; the others are from California, Georgia and Tennessee. All plan careers in the Thoroughbred industry and hope this gig will help them learn and make good contacts.

During the 17-stop bus tour, the ambassadors are trying to attract peers not only to the sport of Thoroughbred racing, but to the fashion, celebrity and party “lifestyle” surrounding it. They have given away a lot of souvenir jockey goggles and have registered hundreds of people for a contest to win an all-expenses-paid trip for four to the Derby.

The ambassadors identify young leaders and those with big social media followings in each city, take them to the local track and show them a good time in the hope that they will encourage their friends and social media followers to try racing.

The ambassadors also scout popular venues to take the bus — “places where people like us would hang out,” said José Contreras of Long Beach, Calif., who said he “started reading the Daily Racing Form before I could read books.”

“I’ve been surprised by how many people really want to talk to us,” said Hallie Hardy of Frankfort, an equestrian for most of her life.

When the bus was at the Florida Derby last month, Chip McGaughey of Lexington said young Miami leaders were given behind-the-scenes tours of Gulfstream Park and showed how pari-mutuel betting works. Based on the initial efforts, the strategy seems to be working.

“Winning them some money definitely helps,” McGaughey said.

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Kentucky Derby 138: The day at Churchill Downs

May 5, 2012

LOUISVILLE — Oh, the humanity! Oh, the humidity!

After a stormy night, the sun shone brightly on Churchill Downs all day Saturday as a record 165,307 sweltering fans turned out for the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby. They got a good show for their trouble, as I’ll Have Another blew past front-runner Bodemeister to win the $2 million purse.

The two-minute race capped a day of partying and networking that began long before Mary J. Blige, all decked out in red, rocked The Star-Spangled Banner to several interruptions of applause.

The beer-for-breakfast crowd arrived early in the infield, hoping to stake out a prime spot to pitch a tent, spread a tarp and set up lawn chairs. Many of the groups of families and friends have been coming back to the same spot for years, if not decades.

“I’ve always wanted to come,” said Tony Sirkin, a furniture store owner from Chicago who at mid-morning was trying to lay claim to one of the few remaining patches of green until a group of friends could arrive. “It’s something you’ve got to experience.”

His goal for the day? “To meet my future wife,” Sirkin said.

Nahru Lampkin of Detroit had the same goal Saturday as at his 17 previous Derbys: make a good day’s living as an entertainer. A fixture in the infield, he plays bongo drums and makes up hilarious rhymes about passing fans in hopes of encouraging them to drop some cash in his bucket.

“We come every year to seek this guy out,” Joe DeJohns of Chicago said of Lampkin. “This guy is really, really good.”

High above the infield and grandstand, in the air-conditioned comfort of the luxury suites overlooking the track, well-heeled groups of family, friends and business associates mingled.

For many at the Derby, it was a long day of glad-handing and networking. Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler stopped by the Jockey Club suite of 21c Museum Hotel, the Louisville-based company that recently announced plans to open its third location, a hotel in Lexington, in what has become a small chain of boutique hotels.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer had a hectic day, greeting people, presenting an undercard trophy and entertaining 24 economic development prospects whom he declined to identify.

“It’s a great way to show off our city; you couldn’t ask for anything better than this,” Fischer said. “They always come away favorably impressed.”

Gov. Steve Beshear worked the crowd, which included a visiting group of other Democratic governors from Maryland, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina. When the other governors gathered in a suite, the hall was filled with their dark-suited security guards staring at each other.

Scattered throughout the Downs were celebrities, including Cindy Lauper, Debra Messing and Miranda Lambert. Head and shoulders above them — in both stature and popularity — were members of the championship University of Kentucky basketball team. They wandered through rooms posing for photos with fans before making their way to the Winner’s Circle to help present the Derby trophy.

The Millionaire’s Row crowd included many familiar Kentucky faces: House Speaker Greg Stumbo, Alltech’s Pearse and Deirdre Lyons, Toyota’s Wil James, lawyer and politico Terry McBrayer, and developer Woodford Webb.

The Derby is a fashionista’s paradise. Women seem to compete to see who can wear the tightest dress, the highest heels and the most bodacious hat. Among men, the competition seemed to be for the loudest sport coat, although Jim Leuenberger of Shawano, Wis., took things a step further. He attracted a lot of attention in the paddock with a bright red suit and matching bowler hat.

“I saw a guy last year with a yellow suit,” said Leuenberger, who was attending his 18th Derby. “He told me about a Web site where you can get any color. I’ve always wanted a red one.”

Many Derby regulars get their kicks by wearing outrageous hats sure to attract attention and photographers.

The first time Jan and Scott Baty of Traverse City, Mich., came to the Derby six years ago, she put a plastic pink flamingo on her hat. Her hats have gotten bigger and fancier, but she has stuck with the theme.

“This is our first year with a double-flamingo hat,” said Scott Baty, whose own Panama straw hat was covered with roses. “We ran out of singe-flamingo options.”

But few attention-seekers had it as hard as Tracy Lindberg of Chicago, who was in the infield for his 29th Derby wearing a 50-pound stuffed horse he called Seabiscuit on his head.

“I usually can wear it two or three hours tops,” Lindberg said. “I’ve done an hour, though, and I already can’t feel my neck.”

 


More Derby Day photos: The scene at the Downs

May 5, 2012

Marlitt Dellabough of Eugene, Ore., right, and Denise Meroni of Morris County, New Jersey, center, cheer on their horses in an undercard race on Kentucky Derby Day at Churchill Downs.  Photo by Tom Eblen

The view of the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs from the Jockey Club Suites on Kentucky Derby day.  Photo by Tom Eblen

Women make fashion statements at the Kentucky Derby with outrageous hats. With some men, it’s outrageous sport coats.  Photo by Tom Eblen


Cruising the colorful crowd on Kentucky Derby day

May 5, 2012

Jan and Scott Baty of Traverse City, Mich., were attending their sixth Kentucky Derby. She came the first year with a plastic flamingo on her hat and has stuck with the theme. “This is our first year with a double-flamingo hat,” Scott Baty said. “We ran out of singe-flamingo options.”   Photo by Tom Eblen

Jim Leuenberger of Shawano, Wisc., attending his 18th Kentucky Derby, attracted a lot of attention in his bright red suit and matching bowler hat.  “I saw a guy last year with a yellow suit,” Leuenberger said. “He told me about a Web site where you can get any color. I’ve always wanted a red one.” Photo by Tom Eblen

Tony Sirkin, making his first trip to the Kentucky Derby, tried Saturday morning to save one of the last vacant plots of the infield for a group of friends. The furniture store owner from Chicago said his goal for the day was “to find my future wife.”  Photo by Tom Eblen

Joe DeJohns of Chicago, right,  said he has been coming to the Kentucky Derby since the mid-1980s and always seeks out Nahru Lampkin of Detroit, who sits in the infield playing bongo drums and making up hilarious rhymes about passersby in hopes that they will drop some cash in his bucket. Lampkin said this was his 18th Derby. Photo by Tom Eblen

Tracy Lindbert of Chicago was in the infield for his 29th Kentucky Derby, his second wearing the 50-pound hat he called Seabiscuit.  “I usually can wear it two or three hours tops,” he said. “I’ve done an hour, though, and I already can’t feel my neck.” Photo by Tom Eblen

The ATM is always a popular destination in the Kentucky Derby infield, where there are plenty of opportunities to spend money.  Photo by Tom Eblen


A beautiful afternoon for a record Kentucky Derby crowd

May 7, 2011

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.”


Early photos from today’s Kentucky Derby 137

May 7, 2011

The Churchill Downs infield filled up early this morning, as crowds tried to beat the rain for Satuday’s 137th running of the Kentucky Derby. Here are some photos of fans. Click on each thumbnail to see the complete photo and read their stories.


Kentucky Oaks goes pink for breast cancer awareness

May 6, 2011

LOUISVILLE — The Kentucky Oaks has grown from Louisville’s day at the races into a spectacle almost as big and colorful as the next day’s Kentucky Derby. And the color of the Oaks is most definitely pink.

Many women at Churchill Downs on Friday wore pink hats and dresses. Men wore pink jackets and ties. The track bugler and outriders traded their red coats for pink ones. Balcony railings below the Twin Spires are wrapped in pink fabric. Even the tractors that pulled sleds to smooth the dirt track were pink. All for a good reason: breast cancer awareness.

For the third year, the track donated $1 from each Oaks Day admission to Susan G. Komen for the Cure and $1 from the sale of each Oaks Lily beverage to Horses for Hope.

More important than raising money, though, was raising awareness of breast cancer, the second-leading cause of death among Kentucky women. About 3,000 new cases are diagnosed in the state each year.

Oaks Day is ladies’ day, after all, where fillies run for the lilies in the featured race. And before Plum Pretty held off St. John’s River to win the 137th running of the Oaks, there was a special parade in front of the grandstand.

A crowd of 110,100 spectators, the third-largest in Oaks history, cheered as 137 breast cancer survivors walked with a friend and family in symbolic victory over the disease. The survivors were chosen by the public from nominees whose stories were posted on the Kentucky Oaks’ Web site. More than 30,000 votes were cast.

“It’s very emotional,” said Gina Robinson of New Albany, Ind., who was diagnosed 15 months ago and was there with her husband, Dan. “He looks good in pink, doesn’t he?”

Robinson participated in last year’s parade, too, and found it deeply emotional. “I thought I had it all together until everyone started cheering and I lost it,” she said.

“It’s a big responsibility to represent so many people,” said survivor Angie Brown of Shelbyville, who said she was there to show that young women can get breast cancer, too. “It’s not just your mom’s or your grandma’s disease.”

Brown, 36, was diagnosed and began aggressive chemotherapy when she was 24 weeks pregnant with her third daughter. It was a scary time, but she recovered and her daughter, now 20 months old, wasn’t harmed by the treatment

Hugh Campbell of Louisville, the only male breast cancer survivor in the parade, was nominated by his daughter, Emily, who walked with him. He wore pink pants and, like the women, carried a lily.

“I try to keep it out there that men get this disease, too,” said Campbell, who was diagnosed in December 2007 and has had five recurrences. “I have met several other men with it in the Louisville area, but most men don’t want to be out front about it.”

Like many women, Campbell first noticed a lump in his breast. But unlike many men, he went to a doctor to see about it. He knew what it might be. Campbell’s mother had survived breast cancer, and he had been active in the Komen organization on her behalf since 1997.

“I knew it was out there for both women and men,” he said. “I just didn’t want it to be me.”

Cheering them on was P.J. Cooksey, the all-time leading female jockey until Julie Krone surpassed her number of victories. Cooksey won 2,137 races and overcome a lot of hardship during her 25-year career in a male-dominated sport. But her biggest challenge and victory was over a breast-cancer diagnosis almost 10 years ago.

“It’s no longer a death sentence, especially with early detection,” Cooksey said. “It means a lot to me to see racing get behind this cause in such a big way, because you reach so many women in this state when you connect women and horses.”

Besides, she said, “I love all the pink!”

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:


Founder’s daughters recall Keeneland’s early years

March 29, 2011

Many people have special memories of Keeneland Race Course — pleasant spring and fall afternoons spent watching beautiful horses and people, eating, drinking and, if you’re like me, losing a few dollars at the windows.

Some of my favorite Keeneland memories are from 1984, when I covered Queen Elizabeth II’s visit for the Atlanta newspapers. Everything was freshly painted, and everyone was on best behavior.

When the spring meet opens April 8, Keeneland will celebrate its 75th year.

Sisters Alice Chandler and Patricia Green have unique memories of Keeneland’s early years. Their father, Hal Price Headley, was the driving force behind creating it.

“When Keeneland opened, I was 10 years old,” Chandler said. “I had a pony named Pal and I used to ride my pony down the Versailles Road. Now, can you imagine doing that today? I would get up early and ride him down to Keeneland while they were building it.”

Headley and Louie Beard headed a group of local horsemen in 1935 who wanted to replace the old Kentucky Association track near downtown, which closed in 1933. Jack Keene gave them a good price on a piece of his farm, which included a rambling stone barn he had built as a private training and racing facility.

One corner of “Keene’s folly” became the original part of the Keeneland clubhouse. Stone from the rest of it was used by architect Robert McMeekin for the track’s grandstand and paddock.

Much of the equipment used to build Keeneland came from Headley’s Beaumont Farm, which once covered several thousand acres between Harrodsburg and Versailles roads.

“He took everything we had on the farm,” Chandler said. “The mules, the tractors, the wagons, everything. There just wasn’t enough money to buy that sort of thing and they needed it.”

Despite an aggressive construction schedule, the track wasn’t finished in time for a spring meet, so racing didn’t begin until October 1936.

Chandler, 85, said she will never forget what happened to her on that first opening day. “I was walking up the steps in the grandstand and some guy behind me pinched my bottom,” she said, laughing. “I couldn’t believe it!”

Green, 83, remembers spending many childhood afternoons playing on the clubhouse lawn. “We were given the run of the place,” she said.

Furniture from the Beaumont Farm mansion, which stood where Sullivan University is now on Harrodsburg Road, was taken to Keeneland for use in the clubhouse during those early years.

Green remembers the Beaumont gardener starting what is now the giant infield hedge that spells “Keeneland” in a plot behind their home. “It was a tiny little thing,” she said.

Their older sister Alma’s husband, Louis Haggin, succeeded their father as Keeneland’s president. Alma also played a key role: her taste defined Keeneland’s interior decoration for decades until her death in 2008 at age 96.

Headley had five daughters, then a son. With so many children competing for his attention, “Me now!” was a common expression in the Headley home, Green said. It became the name of one of Headley’s most successful horses. Menow was the champion 2-year-old in 1937, placed third in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1938 and sired 32 stakes winners.

Chandler and Green, the youngest of the Headley’s five daughters, have fond memories of their father treating them more like sons.

“I just adored him,” Chandler said. “If my toe wasn’t under his heel I was running behind. My mother insisted on sending me to boarding school from time to time. I hated every minute of it, because it kept me from going to Keeneland.”

The sisters have remained close to racing. Green’s ex-husband managed two horse farms and she owned Silks Unlimited, a maker of jockey silks that her daughter now owns.

Chandler became a prominent horsewoman. She turned part of Beaumont into award-winning Mill Ridge Farm, where she bred Sir Ivor. He won the 1968 Epsom Derby and helped attract European buyers to Keeneland’s sales. Giacomo, winner of the 2005 Kentucky Derby, was foaled at Mill Ridge.

Chandler and Green think their father, who died in 1962, would be proud of what Keeneland has become. “It’s a tremendous place,” Chandler said. “There’s no other race track like it.”

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:


2010: My Year in Pictures

January 2, 2011

As we begin 2011, a slide show of some of my favorite photos of 2010.


How Kentucky became the Thoroughbred capital

September 29, 2010

Maryjean Wall learned a lot about the “Thoroughbred capital of the world” in 35 years as an award-winning racing writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader. But it wasn’t until she retired and finished her doctorate in history at the University of Kentucky that Wall figured out how it came to be.

Kentucky’s domination of Thoroughbred breeding during the past century wasn’t really about the mineral-rich bluegrass and limestone water, although they certainly helped. It resulted from a chain of events during the turbulent decades after the Civil War that Kentuckians cleverly exploited.

Maryjean Wall. Photo by Mark Cornelison

It involved crafting an Old South image for Kentucky at the turn of the last century that appealed to the nation’s richest horsemen — and all but erased African- Americans from the picture. Wall pulls this story together in a new book, How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders (The University Press of Kentucky, $29.95)

I had heard pieces of this fascinating story for years. When Wall was still at the Herald-Leader and I was the managing editor, she would occasionally wander into my office and tell me about her research.

The finished book is a remarkable page-turner that earned glowing cover blurbs from some of the best historians of Kentucky and Thoroughbred racing. The book puts together many pieces of a complicated puzzle, and it is filled with well-documented stories that explain a lot about the evolution of Kentucky society and the horse industry.

Kentucky dominated Thoroughbred breeding in the early 1800s, thanks to its grass and water. But the Civil War devastated Kentucky’s economy; much breeding stock was killed, stolen by raiders or moved out of state for safe-keeping.

Northeast industrialists and Wall Street speculators emerged from the war as the nation’s richest men, and they embraced the “sport of kings.” They began buying the best mares and stallions and installing them on new farms in New York and New Jersey.

Kentucky breeders realized they were losing their grip on the industry and needed to attract that Northeast capital. But there was a problem: Kentucky had a well-deserved reputation for violence and lawlessness that scared away the tycoons who now dominated horse racing.

Kentucky was a Civil War border state that officially remained loyal to the Union. But as industrialization led to more anxiety and racism in American society, the public imagination was captured by “lost cause” nostalgia for an idealized Old South.

Until the 1890s, African-Americans had been some of the most successful jockeys and trainers. Jockey Isaac Murphy became a rich man. But as racism grew, blacks were forced out of all but the most menial horse racing jobs, not just in Kentucky but across the nation.

Wall writes that Kentucky breeders eagerly exploited this Old South myth to rebrand the state. Novelists and newspapermen started depicting a land of white-suited “Kentucky colonels” on columned verandas — a place where the living was easy for wealthy white people and black folks knew their place.

New York’s leading equine journal, Turf, Field and Farm, published by Lexington-born brothers Benjamin and Sanders Bruce, offered Northeast horsemen a steady drumbeat of Bluegrass boosterism.

That led several Northern moguls, including August Belmont and James Ben Ali Haggin, to start breeding farms near Lexington. Many more followed after anti-gambling forces outlawed racing in New York and many other states about 1910.

Modern Kentucky has many legacies from this period, including the large number of absentee farm owners and a professional class of bloodstock agents, trainers, veterinarians and others who have made horses a vital part of the state’s economy.

“I hope readers put this book down with a greater respect for the (horse) industry,” Wall said over lunch last week. Like many, Walls fears for the Thoroughbred industry’s future in Kentucky, but she thinks the solutions are more complex than the long fight over expanded gambling.

“It was never a given that the horse industry would stay here after the Civil War, and that is still relevant today,” Wall said. “The grass was never enough. And it’s still not enough.”

If you go

Maryjean Wall will discuss and sign How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders:

■ 4 p.m. Oct. 2, Morris book shop, 408 Southland Dr., Lexington

■ 7 p.m. Oct. 5, Woodford County Public Library, 115 N. Main St., Versailles

■ 6:30 p.m. Oct. 7, Kentucky Historical Society, 100 W. Broadway, Frankfort


Rain doesn’t dampen Kentucky Derby crowd

May 1, 2010

Tawni Colmone of Portland, Ore., wasn’t expecting this when she asked her grandmother to take her to the Kentucky Derby. What was she expecting?

“Sun, actually,” said Colmone, 17. “And watching races instead of looking for a place to stay out of the rain.”

As the steady rain grew harder a couple of hours before the big race, Colmone and her grandmother, Karen Wilson, kept their hats dry by standing under a vendor’s tent. But they planned to go back to their bleacher seats to watch the Derby, no matter what.

“We’re having a ball,” said Wilson, who was more upbeat than her granddaughter. Maybe it was because she’s from Seattle and isn’t bothered by rain. Or maybe it was because she was holding a mint julep.

“It’s all thrilling,” she said of their first Derby. “It’s an experience we’ll always remember.”

Fortunately for the 155,804 people who packed Churchill Downs in the sixth-largest Derby crowd ever, the rain stopped and the sun popped out just in time for the 136th Run for the Roses.

It was a perfect break for one of the wettest Derby Days in years. As usual, many women were dressed to the nines. But thanks to clear plastic ponchos, everyone could still admire them while they stayed dry.

Women with especially large hats had to keep a hand — or two — on them so they wouldn’t blow away. Kevin Mangas of Lexington thought he had the perfect accessory for his linen suit: a hat shaped like a yellow duck.

Many spectators with outside seats sought refuge from the rain in the bowels of the grandstand, which resembled a New York subway platform at rush hour. Others simply swaddled themselves in plastic. Some women wore rubber boots; others soldiered on in stiletto heels.

The infield quickly became a sea of mud, which made it all the more fun for Atlantans Rachel Heller and her brother, John Loftin, to dance in. “I’m having a blast,” she said, showing off the red rubber boots she bought at Wal-Mart to go with her yellow hat.

“We wanted to experience the Derby; we’ve watched it on TV for years,” said Roland Carey of Chicago, who was sitting in lawn chairs in the infield with his sister, Raquel Carey, and niece, Tiffani Brown. “We’ve got ponchos. We’re ready. There’s a real spirit here, rain or shine.”

Nick Longobardi and Tina Brown, who live near Ft. Myers, Fla., didn’t seem to notice the rain as they stood in the infield mud and kissed. After I shot their picture and asked their names, Longobardi leaned over and whispered that he planned to ask Brown to marry him later in the day.

Keeping dry wasn’t a problem for those on Millionaire’s Row and other fancy suites atop the grandstand. They kept busy eating fine food and posing for photos with celebrities such as UK basketball Coach John Calipari and golfing great Arnold Palmer.

Six crew members from the Navy’s USS Kentucky, a ballistic missile submarine based near Seattle, took in the Derby as part of a goodwill trip to the state. They also planned to meet the governor and visit the Louisville Slugger museum and the universities of Kentucky and Louisville before heading back to the sub.

“This has been great,” said Lt. JG Richard Sanford, who is from Grand Rapids, Mich. “The people here have been so nice to us.”

For some, Derby Day rain was a mild distraction to the important business of the day: picking horses.

“I’ve had a lot of winners today,” said Charlotte Ross of Columbus, Ohio, who sat in an outside grandstand box, fancy green hat and heavy raincoat, absorbed in her Daily Racing Form. “Does the rain bother me? Oh, heavens no! I like the mudders.”


More Derby photos: hunting celebs and dodging rain

May 1, 2010

Click on each thumbnail to see full photo:


Photos: Derby Day begins wet; nobody minds

May 1, 2010

I just spent some time walking around Churchill Downs, where there’s a light rain falling.  The infield already is a sea of mud, but that hasn’t kept crowds from filling it.  Lots of ponchos, rubber boots and raincoats in addition to fancy Derby hats, suits and dresses. Here are some photos from the pre-Derby action.

Click on each thumbnail to see full photo:


Kentucky Derby Day: We can’t rest on our roses

May 1, 2010

The Kentucky Derby struts a fine line between the past and the future.

First run in 1875, it is America’s oldest continuous sporting event. It is the most famous horse race, the one every Thoroughbred owner wants to win. Some horsemen have spent careers, and much more than the $2 million purse, trying.

The Derby has become Kentucky’s global identity — second only to Kentucky Fried Chicken. Several years ago, I went to church with friends in a little town on the southern coast of Australia. As we were introduced to the priest on our way out, he asked where we were from. When I replied, “Kentucky,” his face lit up and he said, “Ah, the Kentucky Derby!”

Matt Winn, the P.T. Barnum of early 20th century horse racing, put the Derby on the map. Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson helped keep it there with his alcohol-fueled essay about aspects of the Derby that can be “decadent and depraved.”

As we prepare for the 136th running of this two-minute horse race, it is worth pausing to ponder the Kentucky Derby’s mystique and what will keep it alive.

The Derby is, of course, tied to the fortunes of horse racing, whose popularity has been in decline for a generation. Many blame the industry for focusing too much on gambling revenue and too little on attracting new fans to the sport’s excitement and pageantry.

A few years ago, the public seemed to be losing interest in the Derby itself; television ratings hit bottom in 2000. That was a wakeup call for Churchill Downs, which invested big bucks in new facilities and worked harder to attract celebrities who weren’t already has-beens when today’s young potential racing fans were born.

NBC took over the Derby TV contract from ABC in 2001 and ratings began to climb. Last year, ratings were their best since 1992, making the Derby the second-most watched American sporting event after the Super Bowl. This year, Churchill Downs and NBC are trying to build public excitement with “Road to the Kentucky Derby” telecasts of prep races.

NBC realized that nearly half of the Derby’s TV viewers are women, most of whom wouldn’t know a furlong from a trifecta. NBC and its Bravo network feature Derby content aimed at them: fashion, food and celebrities.

Churchill Downs and NBC now understand that the Derby can’t coast on its reputation. Nothing can. The Derby must constantly be renewed and reinvented. It must preserve tradition while at the same time making Southern charm hip and sophisticated. In short, the Derby must be special.

After all, name another sporting event where tens of thousands of male spectators willingly dress up — in pastels! What other event of any kind gives a woman the excuse to buy and wear a big, bodacious hat?

Beyond Churchill Downs’ gates, Derby Day is to Kentucky what St. Patrick’s Day is to Ireland. It is the one day each year when people who ordinarily couldn’t care less about Kentucky or horses look to see who is running, pick a favorite (probably based on its name) and maybe even place a bet.

It is the day when Kentuckians living elsewhere get homesick and throw a party. They cook burgoo and hot Browns and do something they know is just, plain wrong: they contaminate bourbon with sugar and mint.

Derby Day is about keeping a mostly mythical past alive, the present fresh and fun and the future one where people like that priest I met in Australia can hear the word Kentucky and instinctively say, “Ah, the Kentucky Derby!”