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.
Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:
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.”
Click on each thumbnail to see larger photo and read caption:
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.”
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
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.”
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.
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:
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: