A thin layer of water coated much of Churchill Downs on Saturday. You could see it in puddles people skipped over in the concourse, in the mud that claimed shoes in the infield and, most importantly, on the track that Always Dreaming sprinted over to win the 143rd Kentucky Derby.
The mud did little to slow down Always Dreaming as he pulled away from the pack at the end of the race, taking home the $1.24 million prize in front of a roaring crowd of 158,070 and becoming the 5th favorite in a row to win the first leg of the Triple Crown.
The rain coated the downs periodically throughout the day, sending people running for cover and keeping hats and formal wear wrapped in clear ponchos. But the wet conditions did little to dampen the spirits, or the consumption of them, for those in attendance.
“I love the horses,” said Ashley Cebak, wearing a five-pound hat topped with blue and green ribbons and a bed of fake roses trailing down the back. “I love the how exciting every race is, I love the fashion, I love the juleps and I love the hospitality.”
Through the tunnel and onto the infield, blue, green and white tarps spread along the chain-link fence like spiderwebs in the morning, as people created lean-tos in attempts to stay dry.
Ken and Joan Conant, from Johns Creek, Ga., had a different approach. They lined up six matching beach chairs, all complete with canopies, and spread a clear tarp across.
The couple — attending their first Derby with their two sons as a birthday present for Ken, who just turned 60 — hoped the contraption would last throughout the day.
The Conants didn’t need to worry about the rain. By lunchtime, the sun was shining, birds were chirping and men in panama hats were double-fisting bud lights.
People hovered around small tables next to losing tickets cast away in disgust, scouring their programs and tip sheets for their next bet, while men in seer-sucker suits and women in their finest hats stood in line with their $20 bills at the ready.
The likes of former Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, actor Larry David and actor Jesse Eisenberg were able to ride escalators past the throngs of people and up to Millionaires Row. There, they could hobnob in large dining rooms, private suites and balconies overlooking the track.
Among those in the upper level was Lexington mayor Jim Gray, who placed a bet on Battle of Midway, who came in third.
“I know they’re long shots,” Gray said over text message, “but I’m irrepressibly patriotic.”
Those who ventured into the infield could be identified by the mud caked to the cuffs of their pants. Among them was Jared Hughes, 23, from Shepherdsville, a Derby first-timer.
“It’s exceeded my expectations,” Hughes said of the Derby. “It’s phenomenal.”
Others were seasoned experts looking to make a fashion statement.
Reed Wenstrad of Iowa, attending his sixth Derby, had on a hat crafted to look like a jockey’s helmet, complete with a horse carousel circling on top. To admire the hat, one had to get past his star spangled pants, giant rose belt buckle and rose encrusted clock necklace.
Wenstrad said, “364 days a year, the ladies always have the advantage. Why not guys for one day?”
And, as losing tickets of failed bets coated the floor and trash cans of the track, many went home with their wallets a little lighter. Or, maybe, they just bought drinks.
“How much are the juleps?” a young man in boat shoes and a bow tie asked as he walked by a vendor offering up the famous drink early in the day.
“Fourteen dollars,” said the vendor.
“Whoah,” the man said, continuing on his way.