LOUISVILLE — Between the big hats, the big bets and the booze, it can be easy to miss the other race happening at the Kentucky Derby.
But in the stands — from Millionaire's Row to the finish line — politicians were either clocking in and looking for hands to shake or clocking out and just enjoying a day at the track.
Arguably no Kentucky politician has been on more of a roll than U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
McConnell, who was elected to his sixth term last November, was in fine spirits Saturday, enjoying the sunshine with friends and supporters and his wife, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao.
The senator said it was a great field, noting that it reminded him of another race that is starting to take shape.
"Everybody says this is the best field in the Derby in at least 30 years," he said. "It reminds me of the Republican candidates for president. And this is the best field we've had and the most open race we've had in anybody's memory."
McConnell said he liked the two favorites entered by trainer Bob Baffert to win the race, but he was "hedging," putting some money on Carpe Diem, which he said is owned by some friends of his.
The horse McConnell is backing in next year's presidential race, junior U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, took a much different approach to this year's race than he did a year ago.
Last year, Paul brought conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch and gamely played along as The New York Times followed him along.
This year, the Herald-Leader found Paul at the bar, where the senator — a cocktail in each hand — said he wasn't talking to the media.
Down ballot, however, candidates and officials were in a grand mood, happy to talk about their Derby picks and what a great day the Derby is for Kentucky.
U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, who represents Louisville, was beaming with pride Saturday, hoping his Oaks-Derby double paid off.
"It's always nice to have the attention of the country if not the world focused on your community," Yarmuth said. "People always ask me when I meet them 'Do you represent Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby?' And I'm lucky to say I do."
Gov. Steve Beshear, who made his last trip to the Winner's Circle as governor Saturday, acknowledged that he's going to miss the honor when it is passed on to a successor later this year.
"Derby Day is always such a great day, particularly for a Kentucky governor," Beshear said. "One of the biggest thrills that any Kentucky governor can have is being out in that Winner's Circle and handing out the trophy to the winner of the Kentucky Derby."
The governor was betting on Dortmund, explaining the science that led him to that pick.
"My first year as governor and Jane's as First Lady was 2008, and Big Brown won," Beshear said. "Big Brown's the sire of Dortmund, and this year it's our eighth year as governor and First Lady and he's coming out of Post 8. So it's a very scientific choice."
His son, Andy, who is running for attorney general this year, was going with Carpe Diem, combining his political message with his betting strategy.
"I've got a Kentucky-bred, Kentucky-owned and Kentucky-trained horse that's got a heck of a message of trying to take advantage of every moment, and that's what we're trying to do in this campaign," the younger Beshear said.
U.S. Rep. Andy Barr said he was going with Carpe Diem because it won the Bluegrass Stakes, which just happened to run in Barr's district. "You gotta cheer for the Keeneland horse," Barr said.
Three of the men vying to succeed Gov. Beshear were predictably divided in who they thought would win the race.
Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer said he was betting on Upstart to win because he thought the horse had the best trainer and pedigree.
When told that his running mate, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, was joining a lot of other Republicans in putting money down on Far Right, Comer laughed.
"Well he's from Northern Kentucky, so that's the perfect horse for him," Comer said.
Attorney General Jack Conway, the likely Democratic gubernatorial nominee, said he was largely focused on the races Saturday.
From a horse-owning family, Conway said he was "too much of a horseman" to try and blend a political message with his bets.
"I'm a purist," he said.
Conway, who as a child learned every Derby winner since 1940, said he did not think there was a better horse in the field than American Pharoah, and while he was planning to get out and shake some hands, "politics takes a backseat" on Derby Day.
When asked where he was hoping to spend next year's Derby, the attorney general played coy. "Next year, if I'm honored enough, I hope to be watching it over from the Winner's Circle where a certain office-holder has to present the trophy," Conway said.
And recently retired state Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott, who has been bringing up the rear in the race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, said he was picking Dortmund because he saw a familiar strategy in the horse's previous runs.
"He runs a race like I do," Scott said. "He'll lay back on the back stretch, he'll move up a little bit more coming into the turn, but he won't make his move then. He waits until he gets to the center of the turn, then he starts moving. And when he comes out, then he'll be in second and he's got all the speed and he'll cross the finish line first."
While Scott noted that most Republicans were picking Far Right, he started mixing metaphors when explaining why he didn't see a winner there.
"Everybody's wanting to go Far Right," Scott said, "but Far Right can't win in November. Dortmund can."