The Kentucky Derby is one of those “bucket list” things — an event people dream of attending at least once before they die.
I’ve heard it over and over from first-timers at the 20 Derbys I have covered since 1979. I heard it again Saturday, even as a steady rain drummed down on those dreamers’ fancy suits and outrageous hats.
That’s because this 144-year-old extravaganza is so much more than a horse race; it is a spectacle and the world’s biggest dress-up party. The Kentucky Derby is elegant, gritty, crowded, crazy and, as Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote, decadent and depraved.
Twins Will and Vincent Lortie and a friend drove 16 hours to get here from Montreal, Canada. They’ve always watched the Derby on TV and wanted to go. “We decided this was the year,” said Will Lortie. “We’re 24. We can’t do this when we’re 35 and have kids.”
What makes the Kentucky Derby special? I think it comes down to four things:
The world’s best Thoroughbred 3-year-olds race here each May, and this year was no exception. Spectacular Bid won my first Derby. He might have won the Triple Crown, too, had he not stepped on a safety pin before the Belmont Stakes.
I’ve seen so many great Derby winners since then, each offering the hope that the Triple Crown drought Spectacular Bid began might finally be broken. It didn’t happen until American Pharoah in 2015. But whenever you come to the Derby, there’s hope and a chance you will see Triple Crown history in the making.
The traditional drink is the mint julep. Derby Day is the only time most Kentuckians will drink one, since the sugary, minty cocktail is a waste of good bourbon — and life is too short to drink mediocre bourbon. Churchill Downs’ vendors were doing a brisk business in $14 juleps made with low-proof Old Forester.
Some people buy a julep at Derby just to get the souvenir glass, millions of which now fill china cabinets and flea markets across the country.
“I had one of these glasses for 30 years,” said Roger Van Der Genugten of Schererville, Ind., who was attending his first Derby since 1982 and sipping a julep. “In one of my moves it got broken, so I’m hoping to make it home with this one.”
Another big tradition here is singing Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” as the horses come out for the big race. It’s a sentimental song about home and Kentucky’s beauty. But it’s also about slavery. The song’s racial overtones, while well-intentioned in 1853, have been controversial ever since. But after a few mint juleps, most Derby-goers just chime in on the chorus — “Weep no more, my lady!”
Hats and Clothes
People dress up for Derby. Many wear their most elegant, most bizarre or most elegantly bizarre outfits. The emphasis is on hats, including massive show-stoppers of millinery architecture. For those with outside seats Saturday, clear plastic ponchos became an essential part of their ensemble.
One of my favorite hats Saturday was worn by first-timer Bob Burns of Killeen, Texas. He made his hat from a KFC chicken bucket decorated with symbols of Kentucky and Texas — flags, little bourbon bottles and balls of cotton.
My favorite part of Derby Day is people-watching, for many of the reasons outlined above. Churchill Downs is always sprinkled with some rich, famous and important people — and thousands more who want everyone to think they are.
But most folks are here to show off their outfit and have a good time, which is what Mike Johnson of Louisville has been doing for 54 years. This year, he dyed his beard purple, wore cutoff overalls and a suit jacket and put roses around his hat.
“The Derby is like prom and a crazy college party all put together,” said Paul Peterson of Greenwood, Indiana. “It’s on everybody’s bucket list.”