Saturday, May 2, 2009

A Day at the Races

Bruce and I spent Thursday at Churchill Downs for pre-Derby festivities with college friends. Neither of us are horse-racing aficionados, but the Derby is a big deal around these parts whether you're into horses or not. For one day, all Kentuckians become horse-racing aficionados. Truthfully, in spite of being a lifelong Kentuckian (minus brief stints in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh), I had never been to Churchill Downs before Thursday, and yes, that means I've never actually attended the Derby. (I have been to some rockin' Derby parties, though.) So Thursday was an interesting day on many levels.

From a purely personal standpoint, it was wonderful to see old friends again. We are all accomplished adults now with families and professional lives, but for an afternoon and evening, we were 20 years old again. The years melted away, and we weren't teachers and lawyers, engineers or corporate bigwigs. We were sorority sisters and teammates. We reverted easily to those roles we played all those years ago. Three of the couples, myself included, are still married to our college sweethearts.

Churchill Downs is a great place to people-watch. I immediately went into writer-mode, inventing characters to fit the interesting array of folks enjoying the races. The ladies in dresses and big hats fell into one of two categories...moneyed and tasteful, or wannabes who missed the mark and looked more like streetwalkers in derby hats. I was particularly intrigued by the lady in the wide-brimmed feathered hat, spilling out of the top of her form-fitting animal print dress. She was accompanied by a much younger man in a seersucker jacket that resembled one of my grandmother's handmade quilts. I mentally wrote a whole vignette for her. On the other end of the spectrum was the man in the shirt with a giant rooster on it. The slogan underneath said rooster was "Does this shirt make my cock look big." I snorted part of my $9 drink through my nose when Bruce pointed him out. For the record, my girlfriends and I were all dressed in simple spring dresses or skirts, no hats, although Jennifer's shoes were borderline CFM's.

Oh yeah, and there were horses. They are magnificent animals, and we saw several races up close. We had tickets to the corporate village courtesy of our friend, Mike, but the weather turned nice, and we spent most of the afternoon with the unwashed masses right down by the rail. While I still contend Keeneland in Lexington is much prettier, the place is steeped in history, and we wanted to soak in the atmosphere.

The pageantry is impressive. The bugler comes out 10 minutes before each race and plays the familiar call to race, then the horses parade around the front stretch of the track, their huge muscles twitching. They hear the crowd and know it's showtime. Anticipation builds as the handlers load the horses into the gate. The excitement in the air is palpable. Then the bell rings, the gates open and those huge, twitching muscles are set free. Even the roar of the crowd doesn't cover the thunder of hooves as they pass. The roar builds as the racers make their way around the first turn and is sustained while they fly down the back stretch. On the final turn the eventual winner makes his or her move, and sprints past the leader into the stretch. The crowd noise at the finish rivals anything I've heard at a major league baseball or NFL game.

Folks in the know told us attendance was down for Thursday before the Derby. Speculation as to why included swine flu fear and the sluggish economy. Who has money to gamble on horses when it's hard to pay the bills? Bruce and I didn't bet. My method is to pick the horse with the coolest name, hence my pick for today's Derby, Chocolate Candy. We might have gotten lucky, but we decided, instead, to eat and drink our budget for the day, guaranteeing a return on our investment.

Derby week at Churchill Downs is something I can now check off my list. I highly recommend the experience. While this isn't her only face, it is the one Kentucky shows to the world every year, and one in which Kentuckians can take pride.

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