Tom Eblen: Rain turns Derby infield into swamp, but the party rolls on

Herald-Leader columnistMay 4, 2013 

Like many people, I spent 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 high above the track. Saturday was a good day to be rich or famous — or a guest of someone who is.

Outdoor grandstand seats were problematic. But the infield crowd just got wet. Very wet. Not that anyone really 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 even try. 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."

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

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