Tom Eblen: Hats, humanity, humidity make for a record crowd at Derby

Herald-Leader columnistMay 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."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: Tomeblen.bloginky.com.

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