Growing up in Louisville, the Derby has always been a part of my life. When I was a kid, it meant having cookouts with family, getting to drink soda and watching adults scream at the television during the race.
One of my favorite activities was looking at all of the new license plates of people who were in town for the event. Near the end of each April, I began searching. To challenge myself, I would match the license plates to the ones I’d gotten from my Honeycomb cereal boxes.
Despite understanding that people came to Louisville for the race, the impact of this didn’t quite sink in until I was an adult and old enough to participate in some of the activities. Going to bars that stayed open until 6 a.m. and having drinks subsidized by generous out-of-town guests made the Derby experience a little worldlier for me. The population of the city swells with willing enablers, and locals always put on a good show to keep the visitors coming back. Whatever has been said about Derby is probably true.
The electricity in the air during this season is contagious. Even if the race is two minutes of a psychotic break, the mood of the city and all of the events before make Derby irresistible if for nothing more than watching people.
Each semester, in my freshman writing courses, I teach Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” I want students to know about Thompson and his impact on writing, especially his willingness and ability to play with words and sift through the chaff to distill a freakishly clear image of his subjects — often despite his own inebriation. I also want them to realize that a lot of life isn’t about what’s obvious. The Derby is as much about life as it is horses.
I’m always impressed by the accuracy of Thompson’s descriptions. While I think the race crowd has improved some, Churchill Downs is still a pretty good place to come and “watch the real beasts perform.” It is a microcosm of human extremes. Every level of society is crammed into a relatively small area, and a quick study can be quite educational, even if the only things observed are the hats.
From the elegant to the strange, a “race day” hat speaks volumes about the Derby accessory being the pinnacle exercise in millinery choices.
So another Derby season is here, and despite my teaching of Thompson and numerous trips to the track, I have never been to the famous race. In some ways, I think growing up with the specter of the pre-Derby Central Avenue block party gave me mixed feelings about going. Central Avenue was tempting during my teen years as many of my heavily Aqua-Netted friends came to school bearing stories that were often corroborated by articles in The Courier-Journal.
In my youthful prudishness, it was probably a good idea I never made it to Central Avenue. I don’t think I would have enjoyed much of it. I wasn’t quite as open to the displays of public baseness that I’d now probably ignore.
Much of my childhood prepared me to be an open and accepting person; however, the road to that actualization was paved with the misgivings of an uptight stick in the mud. I now realize the fun I missed and that I have yet to experience Derby Day at the track.
I went to Churchill Downs during Derby week for the first time a few years ago thanks to a generous invitation from a friend. I took my mother, and we spent the day with a lovely crowd of ladies, drinking and eating in the air-conditioned Turf Club. When we ventured out onto the paddock, packed with people in pre-Derby outfits, as elaborate as those on Derby Day, we immersed ourselves in the spectacle. Being surrounded by the crowd after enjoying four hours worth of Lilies, we were girl-drink-drunk and giggly. Walking through the horde was a visual feast. Seersucker and elaborate wide-brimmed sun hats were everywhere.
It was exciting, and I questioned why I’d been so undecided about coming for Derby. This was anthropology at work, and it was fun. I’m excited the festival is now in full swing, and I’m readying my picks for the two-minute psychosis of the race. I’m happy that Churchill Downs is a part of my fabric, and cheers to another year of visitor-supported drunkenness.