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

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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!”