Throughout my wanderings around the world, I always try to tell people I am from the great state of Kentucky. Invariably they respond by asking me two things. No, they don’t question me about bluegrass or bourbon or even basketball, but rather their quips and queries are always directed at what ultimately defines our state to the rest of the universe: Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Kentucky Derby.
I can tell them all about the chicken. I like mine extra crispy and I’ve even been to the Corbin restaurant where it all began. However, until last year, I hadn’t been to Churchill Downs for the annual Run for the Roses. My explanations of how I didn’t like large crowds, I don’t drink mint juleps, and that I don’t own a seersucker suit fell upon deaf ears. “How can you be a true Kentuckian if you’ve never been to the Derby?” they would inevitably ask.
So it was that on the first Saturday of May 2015, I sought to cross this Derby experience off my bucket list. My first step was getting hold of a ticket. I had been warned many times by seasoned Derby veterans that where you sit will define your overall experience. Since I was several decades past my partying prime, I knew immediately that the infield was out.
On the other end of the spectrum, I sensed that I didn’t quite belong among the elitist blue-bloods on Millionaire’s Row, either. Thus, on a gloriously sun-splashed morning, armed with my $345 StubHub reserved seat in the grandstand, I walked expectantly under the twin spires of Churchill into a picture-book world of elegant thoroughbreds, fancy cuisine, hot-shot celebrities and women with big hats.
My previous Derby participation had been limited to whatever was broadcast on TV at the time. Year after year of Chris Schenkel and Jim Mckay, followed more recently by Tom Hammond and Bob Costas hosting the colorful festivities. Occasionally I would attend a Derby party — not one of the high-falutin’ official soirees thrown by Anita Madden or the Barnstable twins — but just an informal affair with friends or family where we would pick our horses out of the hat.
I still remember the unbridled elation of my then six-year-old daughter Katie when her horse, Silver Charm, crossed the finish line ahead of the pack. Through the years, names like Real Quiet, Fusaichi Pegasus, Smarty Jones, Mine That Bird, and I’ll Have Another rolled off our tongues, easily and naturally. Visions of Affirmed and Alydar battling down the home stretch, the domineering Seattle Slew and the great Secretariat remain firmly fixed in our brains as part of Derby lore.
Somewhere in Vancouver, my sister would host her annual derby extravaganza, trying to demonstrate to our Canadian neighbors what all this Kentucky hospitality fuss was all about.
Experiencing the Derby in person was distinctly different. Watching the equine pageantry up close, sampling the shrimp and grits, hot browns and the burgoo, and waiting patiently in long lines at the betting windows and for the bathrooms forcibly heightened all my senses. Although my reserved section of the grandstand was intended to keep some of the riffraff out, there were still people everywhere.
We often stood shoulder to shoulder, a record crowd of over 170,000 crammed into a space meant for a third that many. I constantly found myself people watching — gazing at the beautiful and not so beautiful, the aristocratic nobility and the frat boys, the gambling diehards and the drunks. My only celebrity sighting the entire afternoon was Josh Groban on the giant video board singing the National Anthem.
During most of the races, I sat next to a couple from Japan who had planned and saved for two years to make this pilgrimage (Yes, they asked me about KFC). In every race, we cheered our winners and cursed our losers. Between races, we ate and sweated and breathed in secondhand cigar smoke. We waited in nervous anticipation for the magical moment the jockeys and horses would parade onto the track to the familiar strains of My Old Kentucky Home. And finally, we all witnessed an exceptional horse named American Pharoah win “the most exciting two minutes in sports,”
Not a bad finish to my first Kentucky Derby ever. No question about it, I’m a true Kentuckian now.
John Huang of Lexington is a retired orthodontist. Find him at www.huangswhinings.com and on Twitter @KYHuangs.