Have you ever been to a Derby party in Iowa City? I have, and it was glorious. I’ve also attended Derby celebrations in Flint, Indianapolis and Boston, all of them spectacular. You see, it’s not necessary to be in Louisville, or even Kentucky, on the first Saturday in May.
This is what makes the Derby special. It’s recognized across the country due to the infiltration of Kentuckians far and wide. Chances are if you find yourself outside the commonwealth on Derby Saturday, you’ll be able to find a warm crowd that serves a cold mint julep.
Whether you’ve joined the masses at Churchill Downs to experience the spectacle in color, or opted for the picturesque and serene portrait that is Keeneland, being at a racetrack during the “best two minutes in sports” is thrilling. The soothing sun on your face, the sound of bettors tearing their losing tickets, bright-colored attire pulling your eyes at every turn — these are the things that make this pilgrimage memorable.
The good news is that you don’t have to be under the twin spires to fully appreciate Kentucky’s beaming pride. This ray of admiration and repletion is found within all sons and daughters of the Bluegrass. This is why Derby parties are held nationwide, allowing the moment to release this indescribable joy for something positive being heralded from home.
Native Kentuckians have taken their proud traditions with them in their travels, eager to share with others what “running for the roses” really means.
We are given the opportunity to indoctrinate those from other states in bourbon drinking, linen wearing, bet wagering and genteel hospitality. It’s as if we’ve been given the task of converting all guests into official Kentucky Colonels and we won’t rest until our job is done.
You’ll find a common practice at all Derby parties. As Thoroughbreds begin to make their way onto the track, you start to see images of our navy blue flag with pioneer and statesman, rising and falling with the wind. What comes next is always special. A hush comes over even the rowdiest of crowds when My Old Kentucky Home begins its sweet melody.
Whether its 170,000 fans at Churchill or 20 friends in your living room, you feel a swelling happiness hearing the commonwealth’s song sung in unison.
We draw slips of paper out of someone’s elaborate Derby hat, hoping to pull the favorite horse. We break out the Benedictine spread, mini hot browns, country ham and pimento cheese. As for the bourbon offerings, there are too many to mention, only that the choices are aged and delicious.
As the starting gate fills up and tension builds, guests huddle around the TV to see beautiful Thoroughbreds and clean silks. Small talk subsides and all attention is on the beginning of these frenetic two minutes. Then elation erupts as the bell blasts, sending the three-year-olds barreling like cannon balls. Shouting and involuntary movements take hold as the horses break the corner and jockey for position.
You look at your ticket again to see who you’re shouting for. Here they come down the stretch. Your guests are leaning forward, trying to mentally edge their horse further and faster. Down to the wire the crowd cheers for the new champion. The race has been run.
No matter where you are when these two minutes play out, they are breathtakingly exciting. Experiencing Derby day in Kentucky or afar, we’re all joined by the mutual admiration that our commonwealth receives one day a year.
To those in Dallas or Seattle or Los Angeles or any other city where you’ll be able to find a rousing Derby party, partake and celebrate the sun shining bright on your very own Kentucky home.
Jim Jackson of Frankfort is a free-lance writer.