As rain fell over Churchill Downs Saturday morning, infield dwellers countered the stormy conditions in typical infield fashion: with booze, music, and cigars. As the day progressed, a few of the attendees used the rain and muddy grounds to their advantage.
A mere three hours before the Kentucky Derby began, several people gathered around the muddier parts of the infield and cheered as energetic derby attendees did back flips in the mud or participated in “mud bowling,” where people slid into bowling pins using their bodies.
The day started with cooler temperatures and rain before the skies cleared in the early afternoon to jubilant applause.
Max Kilbourn came with his girlfriend Hannah Pike, who is about to start her first year of law school at the University of Kentucky. Kilbourn is also a law school student and will begin his second year in August.
It was Kilbourn’s first Derby.
“It’s definitely a unique atmosphere,” he said. “On college campuses, you don’t see a bunch of people with fedoras and sports coats walking around.”
Kilbourn said his experience was pretty boring, as he was expecting to see some wild activity, similar to the celebrations on State Street in Lexington during the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.
“It’s a lot like Keeneland so far, but that could change,” he said.
Friends Samantha Coyle and Katie DeLeo, from Massachusetts, came out to the Derby for the first time because the two were celebrating their graduation from college. Coyle is a student at Western Kentucky University.
“My last chance to visit her here, so I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it’,” DeLeo said. “Our last hurrah.”
Between the two of them, the friends sampled traditional Kentucky Derby drinks like the mint julep, an Oaks Lily, plus a margarita. They also took notice of unique outfits, such as a man who had the words “Master of the Infield” plastered on the back of his suit in jewelry.
While some were experiencing their first derby, others are considered “derby veterans.” One such is Vicki Nordmann, 70, who said she attended her first Kentucky Derby when she was 15 years old. Nordmann always sits in the same area in the infield, next to the restrooms, and said she doesn’t have to fight for her annual spot.
“Who wants to sit by the toilet?” she said.
She was accompanied by her son, neighbor, college roommate and former co-worker among others.
“You wouldn’t be happy to be with all your friends and family?” she asked.
Nordmann remembered when general admission to the Derby was $3. The price to get into Saturday’s race was $80. Despite that cost, infield patrons crammed into the Bacardi House to down some rum and dance to a electronic remix of French Montana’s “Pop That.” Nearby, Kathleen Egan, 25, was celebrating her bachelorette party with 14 friends from St. Louis, Mo.
“I’m so glad the sun came out,” Egan said.
As the day continued, a larger crowd began to take the infield by storm. Many derby attendees, dressed in fancy suits and dresses, began taking selfies, smoking cigars, drinking or falling asleep in the grass. Mere hours before the derby started, the crowd amassing at the entrance and exit was at a standstill as thousands of people attempted to join the chaos ... or leave it.