Nobody expected to see a repeat of last year’s history-making Kentucky Derby, but that didn’t stop anyone from having a great time.
This, after all, is much more than the nation’s most famous horse race and the first jewel in Thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. It is one of the planet’s best parties.
The party was in full swing when the favorite, Nyquist, with Mario Gutierrez aboard, crossed the finish line to win the 142nd Derby and its $2 million purse. The crowd was the second-largest ever: 167,227.
But fresh in everyone’s memory was last year’s Derby, when American Pharoah began his run into the history books. With victories at the Preakness and Belmont stakes, he would become the first Triple Crown horse since 1978 and the first-ever Grand Slam winner after winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland in October.
“We watched him the entire season through Breeders’ Cup; it just gave me goose bumps,” said Nanni Baker, who breeds Hanovarian horses in Eustace, Texas, and was attending her fourth Derby.
Like many fans, she hopes to live long enough to see another Triple Crown winner. But another Grand Slam horse? That might be too much to ask for.
“I don’t think we’ll see it again,” Baker said. “There’s just so much money at stake. They are afraid to let them keep running, afraid they’ll get hurt, and I understand that.”
But Lisa Schmidt of Louisville held out hope. “Little did we know last year that we were looking at a Triple Crown winner,” she said. “Anything is possible.”
After a week of cold and gloom, Derby Day was hot and mostly sunny. As temperatures hit the mid-80s, the Bacardi rum tent started running out of ice.
Then clouds moved in and the skies suddenly opened, drenching the crowd as Lady Antebellum was performing in the infield. (Freak storm or divine music criticism? You decide.)
But the storm disappeared as quickly as it came, the sun came out and the party resumed with full force.
On Millionaire’s Row, friends gathered, business executives entertained clients and politicians cruised for votes and visibility. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who just quit the Republican presidential race, was here with his wife, Heidi, but didn’t want to talk with reporters.
Among Kentucky politicians on the prowl: Gov. Matt Bevin, his selfie-ready cell phone in hand; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao; and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, who is trying to unseat U.S. Sen. Rand Paul. “This is the center of gravity in Kentucky right now,” Gray said.
Jerry Bruckheimer, the film and television producer, was here with his wife, Linda, who has restored several historic buildings in Bloomfield near their Nelson County farm.
“I love it,” Bruckheimer said of the Derby. “What’s not to like? It’s a great group of people, and they get to dress up and wear their hats.”
Stephen Rolfe Powell, the renowned glass artist who teaches at Centre College, was here as the guest of a patron. He was nursing his left arm, which he broke three weeks ago in Venice, Italy. Don’t worry: he expects to be manhandling big chunks of glass again within a few months.
For many fans, attending the Kentucky Derby had long been on their bucket list.
“I’ve been begging my husband for 28 years and he finally brought me,” said Velina Dixon of Pembroke Pines, Fla., who had a great seat in the first turn. “I love it! The people are so dressed up. The horses are so pretty.”
Beth Weyeneth of Kansas City got infield tickets as a Mother’s Day present from her husband, Lance. It was their first Derby.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and this is the year,” said Rachel Wiechman of Bakersfield, Calif., who was here with her friend Christine Birkholz. “And we get to dress up really nice!”
Jeff Mazzarella of Chambersburg, Pa., was here with a group of friends for his bachelor party. He was sporting stars-and-stripes blazer and slacks, and some of his friends were wearing the most colorful suits they could find online.
“I’d never been to the Derby and thought it would be a fun experience,” Mazzarella said. “It certainly is.”