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