My iPhone took this photo accidentally, but it's a good reflection of my Derby weekend experience. Lots of walking! It was my first time spending the First Saturday in May at Churchill Downs, and it really was unforgettable. Some of those footprints are actually mine—walking the track from the backstretch to the paddock with a trainer friend whose horse ran that weekend. Great racing, good stories, and wonderful company, and two friends closely connected to Derby Winner Animal Kingdom; I couldn’t have designed a better time.
The weekend was not without glitches of course, but these clouds also came with their own silver linings. One of these came Kentucky Oaks afternoon. I parted ways with one of my companions with plans to meet up later. No problem, we’d get in touch by phone of course. Well, my phone died from the nonstop calling, texting, tweeting, photo-snapping, and updating that needed to be done. Getting a hold of each other became quite a challenge after that, but while walking all of Churchill Downs I encountered a very interesting cast of characters, each of whom left their own footprints on the paths to and from the betting window, mint julep bar, horseman’s lounge, and paddock. The following are some of the new acquaintances I made over the weekend.
The Vegas Gal-Pals
These two beautiful senior ladies (and—honestly—former showgirls) leave their retired husbands in Las Vegas and come to Louisville every year making the Oaks and Derby weekend their girlfriends’ escape. With all the gambling in Vegas, the one thing they can’t bet on live is a horse. There are no racetracks in the whole state of Nevada and well, betting on the Derby at the sports book at the Bellagio just isn’t the same. These women know their horses, study the PPs and enjoy mint juleps and spending their winnings out on the town after a day at Churchill.
The Double-Birthday, Double-Date, Derby Weekend
Up in the Sky 5 Lounge sipping the Oaks signature drinks (the Lily and the Fleur de Lis) I met other visitors from Texas. Two couples who had never been to the Derby and who don’t regularly follow horseracing, traveled all the way to Kentucky because they thought it would be a great way to celebrate the men’s fortieth birthdays. Which both happen to fall on Derby day, May 7. I couldn’t agree more with their choice of destination!
The Security Guard
One of the things I always find interesting is meeting a local who has never experienced the traditions of their city. Mind you, I should not find this interesting or at all surprising; I grew up in New York and only visited the top of the Empire State Building when out-of-town guests requested it! That first weekend in May, I met a security guard, a woman, who was so very excited to be working that weekend just to be present at the Derby. She admitted to me that her fascination with horse racing was a primary motivator to work at the Twin Spires. Nice work.
This woman was astounding. A career outrider, she walked and/or rode the backstretch and the track with the authority of her experience, sharp and alert she was prepared to handle any and everything that should come her way. Still, will all on her plate and her mind on this busiest of Churchill weekends, she still took out time to share a story and give a tip to a Derby novice. Thank you!
The Cowboy/Jockey/Horse Trader/Trainer
A cowboy at heart, this man had been working with horses since before my time. We began talking about the day’s races and from there went on to discuss everything from betting to books to city living before wrapping up our conversation with a mint julep and talk of bourbon preferences.
Often we limit our conversation to the convenient or obvious topics. We usually get what we expect—and that’s not bad at all on Derby weekend. We’re all there for the horses, for the races, for the most exciting two minutes in sports. But still, what a happy surprise to find other mutual topics of interest and shared common ground with veritable strangers. Strangers no longer, they are now welcoming, friendly faces in the crowd.