Derby day impressions: Big Brown, Twin Spires, beautiful hats, disaster

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By The Staff


Turret Staff Writer


Saturday I attended my first Kentucky Derby.

The day started out sadly; the overnight rain deposited a chilly, sodden dawn. As a photographer looking for good shots, I held little hope for the day.

At 8 a.m., when I reached Churchill Downs, the flat, gray light supplied a washed-out monotone. The empty stands, puddled track, and practically deserted infield led me to believe the race—if not the whole day—would be a rain-out. My disappointment was almost as thick as the mud and dew all over the Downs infield.

But the sun nosed through the heavy clouds and worked its magic. By midmorning, I felt safe leaving my rain poncho in my lunch tote. Slowly but surely, the smells of grilling brats and spilled beer wafted through the still-chilly breeze, leading me to believe things had taken a turn for the better.  Venturing away from the protection of a tent, I cruised through the infield.

I spotted a few folks who were busily defining their party perimeter with tarps, blankets, and folding chairs. I watched the contrasts parade by. People were dressed in suits, ties, and Italian shoes while others wore short shorts, halter tops, and flip-flops. Most were dressed to impress—or at least, attract attention—and wore hats which ranged from fashionably over-the-top to just plain ridiculous. Flowers, flamingos, fleeces, and feathers perched on the crazy chapeaus, some obviously homemade, others designer originals. 

Touring the infield, I finally deduced there were two types of folks at the Derby: the race-goers—who intently study the program, place their bets, and cheer on the horses—and the party-goers—who seem oblivious to the fact that they are at a racetrack and carefully tend nothing but their plastic beer cups. They could just as easily be at a frat party on a college campus, although some were a bit long in the tooth for campus.

But, to be fair, both groups smiled a lot and seemed to enjoy themselves, as I did just watching them.

By noon, the seersucker suits, strapless sundresses and sandals I’d thought out of place earlier didn’t look so foolish. The sun had triumphed over the dismal morning and the clarity of light gave colors an almost startling vividness. The unbelievably blue sky arched delicately over the bright green grass, providing a sharp contrast for the hues yet to come. The air felt crisp and clean, as if the ozone had no holes and pollution only a figment of someone’s imagination. The day had transformed itself from a bleak morning to a glorious afternoon.

The pre-Derby races started and Churchill Downs unfurled all its imagery. The brassy “call to the post” blended with nickers from the horses and the thunderous voice of the crowd when the horses pounded their way down the home stretch to lay down a sound track that cannot be duplicated on television coverage. The jockeys’ bright silks, attendees’ colorful hats and the Downs’ blooming gardens wove a tapestry that is uniquely Kentucky Derby.

And the horses! How to describe the magnificent horses? The sleek coats, braided manes, muscled bodies, graceful gaits. The thoroughbreds pranced down the track in the pre-race parade, as conscious of their striking good looks as any of the preening women in Millionaires Row.

This particular Derby experience ended in a paradox of emotions; the thrill of watching Big Brown sail effortlessly to victory down the home stretch was quickly extinguished by the sorrow of Eight Belles’ fractures and subsequent euthanasia.

Perhaps the finish of the top two contenders is a reflection of the Derbygoers I mentioned earlier. Big Brown represents the strength and majesty of the traditional sport; the filly represents the revelers (many of whom are under-age) who

throw themselves into the festivities without restraint.  From the number of police officers and EMTs I saw performing their duties, I believe many will be paying for more than mint juleps.

Just as I’ll never remember Big Brown without Eight Belles, the wonder of the Derby and its beauty will also be tainted by the image of a drunken co-ed on an ambulance stretcher on her way to the emergency room.

And so, then, perhaps the Derby mirrors life in general. It’s never just about the Big Browns and beautiful hats. You might prefer to go through life wearing blinkers and pretend the Eight Belles and drunken party-goers have nothing to do with you.

Maybe the secret to a happy life is figuring out whether you belong in Millionaires Row or the infield.

If you have never attended a Derby, it is an experience you should claim for yourself, if only once in your life. Any second-hand coverage is like looking at a black and white negative compared to a color photo.

Maybe you’ll come away with totally different impressions than mine.

But I doubt if you’ll walk away un-impressed.