Seeing the Kentucky Derby live for the first time an 'epic' experience

jmadden@herald-leader.comMay 3, 2014 

At 12:41 p.m. Saturday I saw my first horse race. It was epic.

It was an experience I shared with Tye Thompson, a Texas man who has camped out in the infield at the Kentucky Derby for 19 years. It was one of several races that would be run before the main event at the 140th Kentucky Derby.

Similar to a bass drum, a loud thud sent vibrations through my body that slowed my heart beat, but sent my adrenaline racing. This was the feeling of something special. Something this California kid had never experienced. And a world I knew nothing about.

The Kentucky Derby was something like a barbecue with a diverse group of people. It was like a family reunion or a backyard boogie.

My arrival at Churchill Downs Saturday morning was filled with excitement. When we pulled up, I saw people tailgating near the Downs. Then there were the suits, dresses and hats. I met a California couple — Shawn and Randi Takkinen — dressed to a T. Randi said she made her yellow hat, bedazzled with rhinestones and red jewels to match her red stilettos. Shawn literally had a one-of-a-kind suit with green, yellow and red flowers all over it.

I knew people would be dressed well at the Derby, but I didn't know that the prevailing thought was the brighter the color, the better you look. Hats were big — really big. Some had bows, some had feathers, and they were multicolored. The seersucker suit appeared to be a Derby favorite.

Before I got to Louisville, I had heard the stories about the infield. Last year, I was told, the infield was soaked with rain and mud that resulted in fans hiding under tarps (or using them as Slip-N-Slides) and dancing in the rain with ponchos.

There wasn't any of that Saturday. It was tame. No one jumped on top of portable toilets and doused the crowd beneath them with beer. The crowd was mixed with college students, professionals and families totting around toddlers.

But there was lots of food and alcohol, apparently smuggled into the Downs. And it was loud. Fans chanted at every turn as the horses neared the finish line. They high-fived and yelled as they looked up at the new video screen that towered above them.

Thompson and Lynn Fisher used chocolate-covered strawberries to lure me to their camp near the fourth turn of the track. They taught me how to watch the horses run by watching the screen until the horses get to the third turn. You shift your focus to see them round your way, and then turn back to the screen to see the end of the race.

Thompson, who was with more than two-dozen loved ones, was an infield veteran who knew how to have a good time. In fact, he told me how he smuggled in a bottle of bourbon by taping it to his inner-thigh and wearing overalls.

"If you're standing here with a cup in your hand, you're going to have a shot," he said. "I'm not doing this to get drunk; just to have a good time."

The infield was a neighborly atmosphere, a place where friends gathered to have a good time.

As I battled my way through the swarm of people, stepping over a few bodies that I assume were in a drunken slumber, I walked through the tunnel to return to the front of the Downs. I sat in The Club House area and enjoyed a mint julep. I can see why it's the drink of the Derby.

I reached a bottleneck in the walkway, which I later learned was the end of the celebrity red carpet. Cheryl "Salt" James from the rap group Salt-N-Pepa said "hi" to me as she exited the red carpet. I melted.

In an effort to take in more of this experience, I went up to Millionaires Row, where politicians and celebrities ate prime rib, turkey, seafood and a host of desserts. It was completely different than what I had seen throughout my journey to other parts of Churchill Downs.

And maybe that is what made me truly reflect. Churchill Downs officials said there were 164,906 horseracing fans in attendance Saturday. It was such a different group of people.

The higher I went, the richer a patron had to be. The lower I went, it appeared to mean the less you had.

The disparities of the Kentucky Derby reminded me of a harsh reality: You wear, watch, play, eat and drink when, what and how you can. It is all based on what you make. The servers and concession stand workers I saw were mostly black. and few enjoyed the top-dollar lifestyle.

Geraldine Ealy was working in the Trophy Room as a hostess. She applied for the job after hearing about it from a friend. Ealy, 69, says she wanted to work.

"You get bored sitting at home," the Louisville native said. "I didn't want to give up work. I want to keep going. You can't give up on life.

Ealy's view was uplifting. It is reflective of life.

Sometimes, it doesn't matter where or what your vantage point is because we're all looking at the same thing. And, on Saturday, everyone around me was glued to a giant video screen showing the most famous horse race in the world.

Justin Madden: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety

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