Shortly after noon, two men dressed to the nines in suits and dress shoes waded through the grassy field on The Hill at Keeneland toward the wagering tent.
“We are saving hundreds of dollars being up here,” one murmured to the other.
The Hill at Keeneland was open to Derby partyers who wanted a more casual experience than the track’s clubhouse or even RV row.
Admission was free, you could park anywhere and if anyone was monitoring the amount of Bud Light that came in via picnic cooler, they didn’t say so. You could bet, hit the food trucks, buy Keeneland souvenirs and get drinks.
Some women wore elaborate Derby hats, silky dresses and no shoes. Dogs sniffed around their owners’ coolers eagerly seeking scraps. A huge TV screen beamed races over what seemed like acres of corn hole games.
Flags hung near the food trucks proclaimed the area’s allegiance to the Big Blue Nation and the Conch Republic (really Key West, Fla.).
Julie Meulendyke was playing corn hole in an apricot and tan maxi sundress topped with an apricot hat. Her opponent, Kate Meulendyke, both an Eastern Kentucky University student and her daughter, wore a navy and ivory maxi.
It’s about atmosphere and enjoyment, taking in the day.
The two were having a pre-Mother’s Day celebration and dress-up day.
“You have to share in the Kentucky Derby experience when you’re in Kentucky,” Julie Meulendyke said.
Miranda Lieb had crafted her own jumbo pink fascinator, which she wore to the Kentucky Oaks on Friday. On Saturday, she added a touch of blue to it, changed dresses and came out to The Hill.
She wanted the full range of Kentucky Derby celebrations, she explained: “I’m from Arizona. The is my first experience in the Derby.”
Shane and Tammy Henry of Paris live in horse country all the livelong day, so they didn’t mind not being up close to horses. But they came out to Keeneland on Saturday nonetheless — to get barbecue from a friend’s food truck and to enjoy the sunny, mild Bluegrass day.
“It’s about atmosphere and enjoyment, taking in the day,” Shane Henry said.
Chelsea Kaiser of Georgetown was grilling hamburgers as planes swooped overhead on their way into Blue Grass Airport, as if the area was hosting both a Derby party and an air show.
Her friend Ernest Gaines said that The Hill “is a different experience. I’ve never seen the tailgating.”
Grace Morgan of Frankfort was exactly where she wanted to be on the biggest horse racing day of the year — stretched out barefoot over two white chairs close to the wagering tent and the giant TV screen, waiting for the arrival of her children and their friends and studying a race program.
She was at Keeneland, and as far as she was concerned, there was no better place to be, no matter the day.
“Keeneland is without doubt the most beautiful spot in the universe,” Morgan said. “Churchill is beautiful too, but Keeneland has my heart.”