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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Lexington center finds new careers for retired race horses

April 28, 2014

140403MMSecretariatCenter0195Susanna Thomas, director of the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center, talked to Sullenberger, a former race horse who is being trained for a new role as a pleasure horse. “Sully” was recently adopted.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

When the Kentucky Derby comes around each May, public attention focuses on the glamour of Thoroughbred racing. But reports of abuse and performance-enhancing drugs also have people asking questions about how those horses are treated — and what happens to them after their racing days are over.

Horses are living creatures, after all, not disposable commodities for gambling and sport.

“If the industry wants to survive, it can no longer treat after-care as a charity that can or cannot be supported,” Susanna Thomas said. “It’s a sustainability issue that will not go away.”

As director of the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center at the Kentucky Horse Park, Thomas works with a mostly volunteer staff to retrain about 40 retired racehorses each year for new careers as hunters, jumpers and pleasure riding horses.

Thoroughbreds have a reputation for being high-strung and hard to retrain. But Thomas said the problem is often not the horses, but people who lack the knowledge, skill and patience to help them make a difficult transition.

“It’s sort of like taking a soldier who’s been in heavy-duty combat in Iraq and putting him right into a job on Wall Street,” She said. “He’s going to want to dive under the table every time bells go off.”

The center was created in 2004 in a partnership between the horse industry and the distillery, which raised more than $600,000 for it through the sale of special bourbon bottles.

Thomas became the center’s director six years ago, bringing a diverse skill set and background to the job. Raised in New York City and Europe, she is the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert K. Massie, a Lexington native, and Suzanne Massie, a Russian expert and presidential advisor who taught Ronald Reagan the phrase, “Trust but verify.”

140403MMSecretariatCenter0209AThomas had worked in journalism and non-profits. She is married to James Thomas, who before retirement in 2005 spent 41 years restoring Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. She has a degree in comparative literature from Princeton and speaks several languages. “Now I speak Equus,” she said.

Thomas has always been fascinated by the intellectual and spiritual relationship between people and horses.

“As a rider, I was never interested in chasing ribbons,” she said. “I was interested in how can I understand this animal better and be in partnership.”

She got a hint at her future when, as a child, she saw carriage horses being abused in Naples, Italy. Thomas told her parents that when she grew up she was going to come back and save them. “I didn’t do that,” she said. “But I save whatever horses I can here.”

The center’s 24-acre campus has a variety of facilities for teaching Thoroughbreds used to running lickety-split on flat dirt or turf to slow down and handle more varied terrain. There are hills, woods, a creek, a cross-country course, two specialty pens and a riding arena. A lot of time is spent getting horses to trust their new trainers and desensitizing them to noises and distractions.

“As a responsible trainer,” Thomas said, “you have to figure out a way to make the right way easy and the wrong way hard and to build (a horse’s) confidence so he’ll understand it better.”

When a horse is donated to the center for retraining and adoption, Thomas and her staff begin by assessing its physical and mental condition according to a system she developed.

“Every horse gets a horsenality assessment,” Thomas said, which helps determine its best future role, the most effective retraining methods and what kind of new owner will be a good match. Thomas won’t approve adoptions she thinks are a bad match.

The average horse spends two months at the center at a cost of about $2,000. Thomas keeps a “baby book” on each horse that includes its expense records. New owners are asked to cover those expenses as the price of adoption.

“The horse’s job is just to cover its expenses,” Thomas said, adding that the rest of the center’s $300,000 annual budget comes from grants and donations.

“Every horse that comes through us can go on to be an ambassador for this breed at any level in a variety of disciplines,” she said. “We’re talking from Pony Club to the World Equestrian Games.”

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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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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!”

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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!”


Bicycle-racing friends have the Derby of a lifetime

May 4, 2009

Phil Needham didn’t make it to Churchill Downs to see the horse he bred and foaled pull a stunning upset in the Kentucky Derby.

He had his own race to win.

Mine That Bird became the second-biggest long shot ever to win the Derby, covering the 1¼ miles Saturday in a little more than two minutes and two seconds.

A few hours earlier, Needham, 67, rode his bicycle 123 miles in six hours to win his age group in the 18th annual Calvin’s Challenge road race, which drew 210 cyclists to Springfield, Ohio.

Had the Georgetown resident not wanted to be done in time to see the Derby on television, he would have entered the bicycle race’s main event, where he set the record for his age group two years ago by riding 225 miles in 12 hours.

Needham’s racing partner was Bena Halecky, 50, of Lexington, whose 123-mile performance won her age group. She was named the best overall female racer.

“I went up to Louisville last Monday to see the horse work and meet the new owners and trainer, and I was very pleased with what I saw,” Needham said. “But the chances, you know, were very remote, 50-1. So because we had trained and planned for this race, we went to Ohio.”

It wasn’t the first time Needham has been wrong about Mine That Bird.

The Birdstone colt was athletic and strong. Needham’s wife, Judy, thought the yearling was promising. But Needham and his business partners decided to sell him.

“When the partners agreed to sell, we had the right to buy, but we let him go,” Needham said. “He brought $9,500, which was next to nothing. People spend millions trying to create a Derby horse.”

Needham had better instincts about Mine That Bird’s mother.

When Needham and Bill Betz ended their thoroughbred partnership last year, they decided to sell the mare Mining My Own at auction. But when the bids started coming in, Needham thought they were too low. He jumped in and ended up buying her for $8,000.

Needham and Halecky had been friends for years. Halecky, a Procter & Gamble executive, had urged him to buy P&G stock. “He said, ‘If I’m going to invest in your business, you need to invest in mine,” Halecky said. So she kicked in $4,000 for half interest in the mare.

As Needham and Halecky raced Saturday, the Derby was on their minds. They considered it an omen that their race was called Calvin’s Challenge and Mine That Bird was being ridden by jockey Calvin Borel.

“And then we kept seeing birds in front of us on the road and I kept yelling to Bena, ‘Mine That Bird!'” Needham said.

After their race, Needham and Halecky headed back to Lexington, stopping at a sports bar near Cincinnati to eat dinner and watch the Derby. The place was noisy, and the big-screen TV was hard to see. So it took them a few moments to realize that the impossible had happened.

“Finally, Phil looked at me and said, ‘We just won the Kentucky Derby!'” Halecky said. Soon their cell phones were ringing as friends called the congratulate them.

Several of their Bluegrass Cycling Club friends, who gathered to watch the Derby at Keeneland, bet and won big on the horse. But Halecky had put only a $2 bet on him. Needham didn’t bet anything, although his wife, who had always known better, put down $100 to win.

“It was one of the best Saturdays that anyone could ever have,” Needham said. “It’s just unbelievable.”

Since ending his partnership with Betz, Needham has formed Needham Thoroughbreds, with interest in about 15 horses, including Mining My Own.

Needham had planned to focus more on his cycling.

He took up the sport a decade ago and has been riding competitively for seven years. He was sixth in his age group in the 24-mile time trial at the 2007 masters nationals. A first-place finish in last year’s Bluegrass State Games made him eligible to compete this August at the Senior Games in San Francisco, where he plans to enter the time trial and the road race.

“My goal is to be number one in my age group in the country,” he said.

But his 40-year career in thoroughbreds seems to have gotten a second wind.

The $8,000 mare he and Halecky own could now be worth millions if they sell her — or even sell part ownership in her — and perhaps even more in the long run if they keep her and breed her well.

Mine That Bird was the mare’s first foal. She also has a 2-year-old in training and a foal by her side, and she is pregnant with another. At age 8, Mining My Own could have 15 more years of productive life ahead, Needham said.

“Bena wants to continue to own her and have the fun; my wife wants to continue to own her and have the fun,” he said. “My best business sense tells me to keep at least 25 percent. I have to review that with my partner. I have to let the dust settle a little.”

As the dust was beginning to settle Monday afternoon, and it was beginning to rain, Halecky and Needham met near Georgetown for a bike ride through the countryside. They said they planned to ride 20-something miles, maybe more. After all, they had a lot to talk about.


From winner to weather, an unpredictable Derby

May 2, 2009

It was a Kentucky Derby as hard to predict as the weather, with a field of long-shots, two high-profile scratches and a sloppy track.

So it seemed only fitting that Calvin Borel would charge to victory on 50-1 longshot Mine that Bird just a day after winning the Oaks aboard Rachel Alexandra by more than 20 lengths. Both were the second-biggest winning margins ever in their 135-year-old races.

Borel, whose childlike glee after winning his first Derby aboard Street Sense in 2007 captured the world’s affection, was an emotional volcano, rocking back and forth on his horse on the way to the winner’s circle and high-fiving everyone in sight.

His bettors were rocking, too: A $2 wager to win on Mine that Bird paid a cool $103.

It was a joyous outcome for a Derby that seemed all day to be dimmed by gloom about the weather, the economy and a recent history of horse breakdown tragedies.

Thankfully, no horses broke down. And despite predictions of a Derby downpour, the overnight rains ended before Churchill Downs’ gates opened. There was no need for the ponchos and plastic many spectators brought to the track. Temperatures remained cool but comfortable under lead-gray skies. There wasn’t even enough afternoon sunshine to burn the ample cleavage in the grandstands.

The only unhappy people seemed to be the drink vendors. Mint juleps were selling better than beer, but even they weren’t selling that well. One vendor’s mid-morning pitch: “Mint juleps! Mint juleps! Breakfast of champions.”

Fans posed for photos in front of the new statue honoring Barbaro, the 2006 Derby winner who was euthanized after months of trying to recover from an injury in the Preakness.

Emotions were even more raw as an undercard race for fillies was renamed the Eight Belles, after the courageous filly who broke down and had to be destroyed at the end of last year’s race after running as hard as she could with the big boys. Before that race began, a bell tolled eight times.

Another cloud hanging over the Derby to some extent was the economic recession. The crowd of 153,563 was the seventh-largest, down from 157,700 last year. The previous day’s Oaks day attendance was 104,867, that event’s fourth-largest.

The betting-window lines were almost as long as those at the women’s restrooms, but it was hard to tell if people were betting as much as usual. Some vendors thought fans were cutting back on food and drink.

Nahru Lampkin of Detroit, who over the past 15 years has become something of a Derby celebrity by sitting in the infield playing bongo drums and rapping to passersby, said his tips were off about 20 percent.

He was working hard for every dollar pitched into his plastic bucket, rhyming about the pretty women walking by and offering advice to college students: “Stay in school, don’t be dumb or you could end up playing this drum.”

On the other end of the Derby’s social scale, gourmet smells filled the Jockey Suites, but the crowd seemed a little lighter than usual.  In the halls of rooms with brass door plates identifying them as the venues of banks, railroads and big horse farms, regulars said there was less corporate entertaining than in the recent past.

Still, the Derby attracted its share of the rich and famous. Sheik Mohammed al Maktoum of Dubai was here to see his two entries, Regal Ransom and Desert Party, fail to break his Derby jinx. And billionaire Alice Walton, daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, was a guest in the Jockey Suites room of Louisville power couple Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, creators of the 21c Museum Hotel.

The red carpet walk included Motown music greats Aretha Franklin and Mary Wilson, several pro football players and Bobby Flay, the chef made famous by the Food Network.

And if that wasn’t enough celebrity food, two Bravo network Top Chef competitors demonstrated creative hot brown sandwich recipes in the Infield Club. And weight-loss titan Jenny Craig had a horse entered with the ironic name Chocolate Candy.

The Derby fashion parade was as colorful as ever. Some wore seersucker, linen and silk; others denim and khaki. A few showed up in super-hero leotards and tacky hats.

Pete Bush, a Louisville native who now lives in Baton Rouge, La., was decked out in his finest, hoping it wouldn’t rain and ruin his shiny white shoes. “I’d like to wear them more than once,” he said.

The grandstands and luxury suites were filled with shapely women in tight dresses and feathery hats almost big enough for their own Zip Code.

Cynthia Lundeen, who designs hats in Cleveland, Ohio, was in her element, posing for pictures in one of her own creations while her husband followed along in a tuxedo and a big hat of his own.

“On Derby day, everyone is so happy,” Lundeen said. “If the whole world could be like Derby day, the world would be a better place.”

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The infield gets fancy, but keeps its spirit

May 1, 2009

I first came to the Churchill Downs infield as a college student working for The Associated Press. My story described it as “a place where you are liable to see almost anything – except perhaps the Kentucky Derby.”

I’m sure that by Saturday afternoon parts of the infield will look much as they did on my first visit 30 years ago.

A few thousand rowdy college students and good ol’ boys and girls will get liquored up, lose some of their clothing and, if the weather forecast is accurate, slide around in the mud between thunderstorms.

But some things have changed.

For one, you can actually see the races, thanks to several giant video screens.  For another, the infield is smaller than it used to be – and seems to be getting smaller every year.

A big chunk disappeared when Churchill Downs built a turf track inside the dirt oval. Then temporary tent-topped buildings were put up along the track’s front side for big-ticket corporate entertaining.

This year, yet another chunk of territory has been claimed for high rollers with the creation of the Infield Club.  Tables with folding wooden chairs are arranged beneath tents on grass or brick pavers. There are many bars and food stands, a long line of betting windows and a fancy stage for the band.

The tunnels going into the infield are no longer filled only with people in jeans and shorts carrying tents, folding chairs and coolers. Now, they share the space with men in coats and ties and women in pretty dresses, fancy hats and shoes that wouldn’t last anytime in a drunken mud slide.

Even on the infield’s wild side, around the third turn, the decadence and depravity seems like it will be, well, more organized. There’s an activities area called the CPO — Chief Party Officer — with a dunking booth, twister games and loud music.

(Still, just in case, National Guardsmen on Friday carried a stack of riot shields marked “military police” to a nearby bunker.)

There’s no view of the track from the new fenced-in Infield Club, although you can see the back of the tote board and the top of the grandstand’s famous Twin Spires.

Infield Club admission cost $50 on Oaks day, $150 on Derby day or $175 for both. That’s steeper than infield general admission ($25 on Oaks day, $40 on Derby day), but still a bargain compared to other seating options.

“It’s very nice in here; very comfortable,” said Eileen Hughes of Trenton, N.J., who was here with her husband Douglas for their eighth-straight Derby weekend.

In many past years, the Hughes joined the infield masses and hoped it wouldn’t rain. On this Oaks day, as the clouds kept getting darker, they were feeling good about their investment.

“We looked at clubhouse seats and bleachers with no backs,” Hughes said. “But this is much nicer – and less expensive.”

When they were “young and wild” and growing up in Louisville, sisters Doreen Cornelius and Kena Diggins spent several Derby days in the infield.  They were back Friday for the first time in many years, this time wearing their Oaks day best.

Diggins, who now lives in Pittsburgh, was here for the survivors’ parade that is part of an event by Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Horses and Hope to raise money for breast cancer research and awareness. Churchill Downs is donating between $100,000 and $135,000 to the effort, based on attendance.

“The facilities are wonderful for being outside,” said Cornelius, who was clearly most impressed with the Infield Club’s fancy restroom trailers, with their hardwood floors and real ceramic facilities.  “For women, that’s a major thing.”

But I had to wonder: will the traditional infield crowd someday be squeezed out by creeping gentrification?  Will average joes be able to keep coming to the Derby?

Ken Hanvey of Belleville, Ill., thinks so. He and two buddies have been coming with their canopy and lawn chairs to the same infield spot since 1992.

That was the same year they formed a partnership, SMF of Southern Illinois, to renovate and sell a house.  “We decided the ‘S’ would stand for either smart or stupid, depending on how well we did,” Hanvey said. “For the record, it was ‘stupid.’”

But while the house renovation venture may not have made them much money, it created a Derby tradition they don’t see ending anytime soon.

They said the crowd in their corner of the infield hasn’t changed much in 17 years.  “We have a good time every year we come,” said Gerald Todd.

And why shouldn’t they?  From their spot along the back fence, they can actually see part of the track. If they look beyond the portable toilets, they have a good view of a video screen.

“And we’ve got security right here,” Todd said, pointing to the police and paramedics’ bunker nearby, “just in case things get ugly.”

Click on each photo to enlarge it.


Belle loses race, but hopes to save rival Delta Queen

May 1, 2008

Belle of Louisville pilot Mike Fitzgerald, a retired captain of the boat, lines it up for the race’s start. At left in the background is the Belle of Cincinnati. At right, the Delta Queen. Photos/Tom Eblen

LOUISVILLE – When Mike Fitzgerald climbed up to the Belle of Louisville’s pilothouse for his 32nd Great Steamboat Race, he wanted two things – to beat the Delta Queen, and to see her survive to race again.

Fitzgerald knew he had a better chance of getting his first wish than his second.

The Belle had a 22-19 advantage over the Delta Queen in the annual race along the Ohio River, a highlight of Louisville’s Kentucky Derby Festival since 1963.

But after 40 years of exemptions from a federal safety law that prohibits boats with wooden superstructures from carrying passengers overnight, the Delta Queen seemed to have run out of luck.

Congress last week refused to grant another exemption. If Congress doesn’t change its mind by November, when the current exemption expires, the 82-year-old Delta Queen’s days of cruising up and down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers could be over.

“I don’t think there’s anywhere else you can see two national landmarks race and put on a show like this,” said Fitzgerald. “This is a great tradition.”

As it passes the downtown Louisville bridges, the Delta Queen starts gaining on the Belle of Louisville.

With a picture-perfect afternoon and full loads of passengers, the 94-year-old Belle and the Delta Queen lined up Wednesday to race along with the newer Belle of Cincinnati, which isn’t a true steamboat.

Louisville’s wharf has had steamboats since 1811, and six lines once plied the Ohio River from the city. Replaced by newer technology a century ago, they hang on in nostalgia, carrying passengers on pleasure cruises.

The steam calliopes on the Belle of Louisville and Delta Queen were playing while passengers boarded, but were almost drowned out by traffic from the interstate highway beside the wharf. Tractor-trailers, which long ago replaced the trains that had replaced the steamboats, sped by. Some even honked in honor of the floating anachronisms.

The Belle was the last one at the starting line below one of Louisville’s downtown bridges, but the fireman and engineer soon had its high-pressure steam turbines at full power. It rushed ahead of the other two boats. The swoosh, swoosh of the smokestack beat a steady rhythm on the roof, drowning out the partying passengers on the decks below.

Fitzgerald knew the best advantage he had was early speed. The Belle isn’t as powerful as the Delta Queen, but it’s smaller and quicker.

“We want to get a good start,” Fitzgerald said. “We take advantage of whatever we can.”

The Delta Queen, left, and Belle of Cincinnati, speed past the Belle of Louisville in the first leg of the race.

Originally named the Idlewilde, the Belle was built in 1914 to ferry passengers and freight from Memphis. It was renamed the Avalon and ran excursions from Louisville in the mid-1900s. It was headed for the scrap heap in 1962 when Jefferson County bought and restored it.

Fitzgerald grew up not far from the river and began working as a deckhand on the Belle the summer after he graduated from high school. He never left. By his 22nd birthday, Fitzgerald had put in enough time behind the wheel to earn his master’s license. He became captain at age 25 in 1983, becoming the youngest captain on the river, and held the job for 18 years before retiring.

So what does he do in retirement? He works as the boat’s carpenter, and he pilots whenever he can.

As the boats sped past downtown Louisville, Fitzgerald, Captain Mark Doty and the boat’s three other officers in the pilothouse started looking worried. The Delta Queen was steadily gaining on them. Then passing them. Then way out ahead of them.

“She’s doing as well as she can do,” Fitzgerald said out the pilothouse window as the Belle bucked a strong headwind to cruise at perhaps 10 mph. “Unfortunately, that boat’s doing a lot better.”

The Delta Queen was far ahead at the halfway point of the 14-mile race, an island where the boats were to turn around. But when Fitzgerald and Doty looked ahead, they saw a barge taking up their half of the river.

Faced with a perceived safety threat, the Belle’s officers followed an old steamboat racing tradition: They cheated.

“Everything’s fair in steamboat racing,” said retired pilot Charlie Decker, who came along for the ride.

So the Belle turned around, followed by the Belle of Cincinnati. The Delta Queen, far up the river, saw what was happening and made its turn. Suddenly, the tables were turned. But was it legal?

“It’s all up to the judges,” Fitzgerald said with a smile.

“It wasn’t the kind of race I wanted to run,” said Doty, the captain, “but we chose to do the safe thing and turn early.”

The safe thing is at the heart of the Delta Queen’s dilemma. Fans are urging Congress to grant another safety exemption. They’ve set up a Web site – www.savethedeltaqueen.com. And Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, a big steamboat fan, urged everyone to write their congressional representatives on the Delta Queen’s behalf.

The fear of those who oppose an exemption, though, is a tragic fire in the middle of the night in the middle of a river.

When he paid a visit to the pilothouse near the end of the race, Abramson wasn’t too optimistic. “Everybody I talk to says no,” he said. “But I’m still hopeful.”

Abramson said Derby week wouldn’t be the same without the steamboat race. And without the Delta Queen, there isn’t another true steamboat left that’s a fair match for the Belle.

“In 1985, when I ran for mayor, they asked why I was running, and I said so I could get two tickets to the steamboat race,” Abramson said. “It’s a nice piece of tradition.”

With the wind at its back, the Belle of Louisville maintained its lead, steaming back to downtown Louisville perhaps half a mile ahead of the Delta Queen. But would the judges accept that?

“That’s something we’ll have to take a look at,” said Col. Ray Midkiff of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the judge aboard the Belle.

But when all of the judges conferred later, they decided to give the victor’s trophy – a huge set of gold-painted elk antlers – to the Delta Queen.

Everyone seemed satisfied with the verdict. They thought the Delta Queen deserved a break. They just hope Congress will give it a break, too.

Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, left, and visits the Belle’s roof and pilot house toward the end of the race. At right is pilot Mike Fitzgerald.

Above photo: After an early turn, the Belle steams home ahead, followed by the Belle of Cincinnati and the Delta Queen in back.