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May 11, 2011

Derby virgin

A lifelong Louisvillian finally learns to love the first Saturday in May

Every spring, without fail, I hear the same question: “You’ve never been to the Derby?” Neither longtime Louisvillians nor incredulous out-of-towners can fathom the fact that I’ve never bothered to witness the most exciting two minutes in sports in my very own city.

The truth is, I’ve always been perfectly happy at a neighborhood Derby party, watching the race on TV, or simply ignoring the whole affair and choosing to work in my yard instead.

But this year would be different. Fortune determined I would get the grand tour — starting with the backside of Churchill Downs to meet the horses, trainers and owners in the days leading up to Derby, and then onto the Kentucky Derby itself.

In fact, I had a Tour Guide of My Very Own — someone with access to the track and vast knowledge of the horses.

Last week, I watched the beautiful gray Twinspired, locally owned by good people, go through his paces at the old Louisville Downs at the unthinkable hour of 7 a.m. My first “touching distance” experience with a bona fide Derby horse was a cool and rainy early morning at the Churchill barns, when the silky midnight stallion ArchArchArch came floating around the corner inside the stable. Given these close encounters, I was sad when ArchArchArch and Twinspired trailed in the back of the pack in the Run for the Roses. It just wasn’t their day.

Before setting out on Derby Day, I packed three bags full of extra shoes, umbrella, water, emergency make-up, camera, auxiliary clothing layers, money and other items I deemed necessary. This was unacceptable to My Tour Guide (“Do you understand what we will be doing?”), and I reluctantly pared it all down to one large shoulder bag. It was a good thing — balancing on heels on a rubbery surface in the tunnel where the horses go from the Paddock to the racetrack, trying to figure out how to work a new camera, and carting an extra 50 pounds around is no small feat.

Upon arriving, I was wholly unprepared for the melee. I decided straight away that my best course of action was to never be more than a few inches from My Tour Guide. If we were to get separated, I should be wandering there still.

I managed to get through my entire first Derby Day without placing a single bet of my own. It was an oversight, really — I was too busy swearing at my new camera and avoiding being swept along in the sea of humans rushing back and forth from the beer line to the betting window. My Tour Guide was doing well at the windows, and he kindly ensured that my love-connection horse ArchArchArch was chosen to win in a ticket with my name on it.

Despite my preconceived belief that mint juleps are hideous concoctions, I agreed to have one, which, I begrudgingly admit, was quite good. In fact, I soon discovered my commemorative glass was empty. I began feeling as though I might have overdone it and thought the best course of action would be to head home. I made this suggestion to My Tour Guide, who replied, “I don’t think so.” Not on Derby Day. And so I faced the rest of the day with as much grace as possible — snapping pictures, rating the hats, admiring the horses, and grinning at the madness.