Going to the Kentucky Derby was a indeed a wild and crazy experience
The 145th running of the Kentucky Derby took place yesterday. The race is the oldest continuous sporting event held in the United States. It beats another by one year. Do you know what is second?
If you said the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, you know your sports history!
Perhaps you have entertained the idea of attending the Kentucky Derby. If so, maybe I could help you with the details. I have been there, and though it was years ago, I doubt if some things have changed much. So if you will indulge me, I will share my adventure with you.
The year was 1980 …
At the time I was playing softball for a team called AJ’s out of New Riegel. The name came from the founder and sponsor of the team, a man named Albert J. Zender. A.J. was a great guy who called everyone on the team “cat” and we returned that moniker.
On days when several players would show up at the Zender household, Mamma Cat — A.J.’s wife Millie — would cook spaghetti for all of us. She took care of her “boys” and we loved it. It was a simpler and wonderful time.
Cat and I had been to the Indianapolis 500 and were talking about the Derby. “Why don’t we go” was the prevailing opinion so we made plans. A teaching colleague of mine knew a girl from his high school days who lived in Louisville and was known to host friends for the weekend. We contacted her and were assured there was room for us to pay a visit.
So on Thursday afternoon we set out for Kentucky. Listening to the radio as we made our way down I-75, mention was made of the Cincinnati Reds playing at home that evening. A.J. had never been to a National League game nor a night game before, and you don’t have to ask me twice if I want to go to a baseball game. So our journey took a brief detour.
That meant that we did not arrive in Louisville until well after midnight. No problem. Everyone was still awake and welcomed us warmly. We eventually found floor space and crashed for the evening.
On Friday we were told that if we went downtown there were several events going on, all part of what was called the Derby Festival. We found an area with a stage where a bluegrass band was performing. We spent a relaxing afternoon listening to the music. For a couple of months after our trip I was still humming “Rocky Top Tennessee” nearly every day!
Back at the house one of our new friends told us that the same band was playing at a local Holiday Inn nearby. Did we want to go? Well, of course.
It was at the lounge that evening that I was introduced to a mint julep. They were serving the preferred drink of Derby-goers in a souvenir glass that listed all the previous Derby winners. The drink itself consists of mostly bourbon whiskey with some green-colored liquid added. Top it off with a sprig of mint and you have a potent drink.
I wanted the glass more than the drink and would have been OK had I not decided that a “set” of souvenir glasses were in order. I still have those glasses in my basement.
Mid-morning on Saturday we made our way to the infield at Churchill Downs. At this point I should point out that if you want to watch the race from the grandstands then you better have connections. Those tickets are passed on to relatives in wills. In other words you will not get to sit with the men in three piece suits and women in flowery dresses and made-to-order hats that are really cool if not very practical.
As we sought out a patch of unoccupied grass in the huge infield, I noticed that the attire of these people was not as fancy. Eventually we found a spot and I hit the blanket. I was not feeling that well, though I don’t know if it was from being tired from the baseball game or being overserved at the Holiday Inn. I will let you decide …
The Derby is the eighth race on the card that includes 11 races. The infield is so vast that actually seeing a horse wasn’t going to happen at least not until the Derby was over. The crowd disperses after the main race of the day, so I was able to walk over to the rail and watch the horses sprint by during the next race. The glimpse was very brief — they run very fast — and had I enjoyed a seat near the rail for the Derby itself I would not likely have identified any of the steeds.
1980 was the year that a hopeful filly entered the field. Genuine Risk was trying to do something only one female had ever done before. Regret became the first filly to win the event in 1915. I told people all weekend that Genuine Risk was going to be the second winner.
I was right, of course. Now whether my prediction was because I know horseflesh or Genuine Risk was the only horse whose name I could remember — those darn juleps — is a matter of contention. I just wish I had felt good enough to place a bet on her!
On Sunday morning we headed home. You’ll have to ask The Cat how he viewed the trip. As for me, I went to watch the fastest two minutes in sport, but instead endured a long nine hours of queasiness that did NOT include seeing a horse actually run!
So if you want to go for the party aspect, by all means go ahead. I would recommend however, that you be a little younger than I am now. If you want to see the Kentucky Derby itself, I suggest you pull up a chair in front of the TV and watch it from the comforts of home.
A taped recording of “Rocky Top” would be a nice touch, but I would avoid the mint juleps.
Al Stephenson is a columnist for The Advertiser-Tribune.
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