(LOUISVILLE, Ky.) – Truth be told, the Kentucky Derby really isn’t about the horse race. What really captures one’s imagination is the spectacle of the entire Derby Day experience. Oh sure, history will note that Country House won the 145th annual “Run for the Roses” after Maximum Security was disqualified for interference. But the real memories of the first Saturday in May always fall back to the pageantry, the traditions, and the pomp and ceremony taking place in and around the race itself.
“It’s a great moment,” said winning jockey Flavien Prat. “It’s a dream come true…it’s amazing. I mean, there’s no race like the Kentucky Derby. And I was hoping to ride it, ride the Derby, and to win it.”
Few venues in the sporting world dare to rival the iconic twin spires of Churchill Downs. The ivy at Wrigley Field, Notre Dame’s Touchdown Jesus, or the Green Monster at Fenway you say? Those are decent choices, but they usually conjure up images of specific teams or season-long events. You show anyone a picture of those quintessential Churchill steeples, however, and all thoughts zoom directly to the Kentucky Derby. For one specific day out of the year, the entire sporting world focuses on our little corner of the Bluegrass State—our ultimate claim to fame. For you see, it’s not the regal, four-legged, three-year-old thoroughbreds that make for the most exciting two minutes in sports—but rather the bourbon, the burgoo, and the big hats that end up capturing our fanciful imaginations.
I grew up in the Commonwealth, but this is only my second official Kentucky Derby—my first as a credentialed media member. Like your first dog, your first car, or your first wife, it’ll forever be hard to top the sentimentality of that initial experience.
But being part of the press corps this time around definitely has its advantages. As a scribe for Sports View America, I’m getting in for free.
According to StubHub, the Derby’s not cheap. A general admission ticket for a spot in the infield usually runs you eighty bucks—an option I wouldn’t recommend, unless you’re someone under thirty with a bon-a-fide death wish. Want to upgrade? A decent seat in the grandstand will likely set you back three to four hundred dollars. If you really want to waste your money, try Millionaires Row—where for a cool six grand, you’ll likely rub elbows with celebrities like Tom Brady, Jennifer Lawrence, or one of the Kardashians.
Speaking of celebrities, the Derby’s really just a glorified fashion show. Both sexes dressed to the nines—or tens for that matter. Seersucker suits, oversized fascinators, and hideous hats grace the walkways. It’s at events like the Derby when you suddenly realize that one man’s fashion is another man’s clown suit. Regardless of perspective, you can dress like a bum if you’re a member of the media. No need to spring for outlandish suspenders or Gucci shoes. Faded jeans, a flannel shirt, and that prized credentialed lanyard hanging around your neck will get you up close and personal to the horseflesh at hand.
Parking, food, and accessible toilets are additional media perks for me this year. Unlike before, I’m not paying thirty bucks for a two-mile hike to the track with porta potty privileges along the way. Instead, I’ve got a reserved spot in the media lot, just a short jaunt to the hallowed front gates. Once inside, I’m treated to quite the spread at the Derby day media buffet. Meats, salads, and desserts all laid out for you to grab and go. No alcohol, though. If you want a sip of that $15 mint julep, you’re on your own. Which begs the question: Can you really enjoy the Kentucky Derby if you’re completely sober? I’m about to find out.
Everyone at this Derby appears just a tad bit tipsy. It’s one big party—and who doesn’t enjoy being the life of the party? Even so, there are two lines of inebriation you simply can’t cross. Don’t get sick, and don’t get naked. Abstaining from liquid courage, I wisely avoided both—leaving the cookie tossing and wardrobe malfunctions to those far less inhibited.
You’d think bad weather would have discouraged some of the crowds today. That wasn’t the case as 150,729 filed in despite the chilly and messy rain. It made for some long and soggy lines at the betting windows—and even longer ones for the food kiosks and bathrooms. Often times, just walking around became a challenge. The pungency of the spilled liquor, grilled meats, body odor, damp air, and ubiquitous cigar smoke became noticeably more unpleasant as the day wore on. Looking around, trash piled up everywhere. The only thing messier was the postrace traffic—horrifically long shuttle waits, Uber lines, and jumbled backups tripling the usual time needed to get home.
Can you enjoy the Derby while sober? If you don’t like crowds, gambling, long lines, drunk people, sick people, loud people, bad traffic, bad weather, bad smells, bad internet, and bad steward rulings, then the answer is a resounding “NO!” But not all events in life are meant to be pleasant. It’s the unique experiences that we so often covet, and many aspects of the Kentucky Derby remain distinguishingly unique. The pre-Derby singing of My Old Kentucky Home is still one of the most sentimental and memorable experiences in all of sports.
When I asked winning trainer Bill Mott what the most memorable aspect of his Kentucky Derby experience was, here’s what he told me. “You know what I enjoy the most is just training the horses. I mean, that’s what I live for—get up in the morning, come out and see the horses…I woke up this morning and said “Oh (bleep), this is here. It’s finally here…When you finally reach a point when the training goes well, it’s actually very memorable. That part of it means the most to me.”
“…walking into that circle at Churchill Downs, it’s a pretty special event,” Mott continued. “Why do it the easy way, you know what I mean?”
Having just covered my first Kentucky Derby and seeing history being made, I know exactly what he means.
Dr. John Huang is lead writer for Sports View America. This column was featured in the Apr/May print edition of Sports View America Publications. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.