My decadent and deprived Kentucky Derby — wear a hat for me

Apr 29, 2009 at 5:00 am

I am coming to the realization that my shirt might not be as bourbon stained as yours this Saturday. It seems I signed up for a graduate school program in Boston and forgot to read the fine print. I have finals the week after Derby.

So I’m sitting here, hundreds of miles away from you, biting my nails and conspiring to find a way to make Derby happen. I am nervous at the thought of not being in Louisville — my old Kentucky home — on Derby Day. And I don’t have exact directions to a Bean Town bar that knows how to make a proper mint julep.

You see, as a Louisvillian, I was born with the Derby Sin.

My mom used to put bourbon on my gums to ease the teething pains. Babysitters taught me how to gamble. In grade school, I competed in horse races — galloping around the St. Stephen Martyr parking lot, pretending to be Pat Day as I rode the mop that I had glued sequenced eyes onto.

I can remember watching Thunder from Indiana’s coast and thinking, “Man, my city looks so cool right now,” and days later waving at Terry Meiners in the parade, wishing he were Mike Shannon.

For a long time, I thought the whole world didn’t have to go to school on Oaks Day. It’s spring! It’s a holiday! It’s practically the first Saturday of May!

I was a senior in high school when my parents gave their only daughter permission to attend Derby. They were reluctant for so long, and with good reason. That Saturday morning, I can remember sitting in my buddy’s basement sneaking beers into our bloodstream and wondering what the hell we were about to get ourselves into.

We were dropped off a few blocks from the track. Having no idea where we were going, we followed the hats, suits and sounds of the Christian reformers and their megaphones. Standing in someone’s front lawn with an ATM machine, we quickly passed around the remaining pint of Early Times and got our underage hands stamped PASS at the ticket gate.

I will never forget the roar of excitement I heard and felt as I laid my virgin eyes on that infield tunnel, screaming to friends I had already lost, “We should have picked a meeting spot!”

My memories from this day are as dizzying as disco balls.

I have flashes of chasing down Puff Daddy, screaming “Get back with J.Lo!” and watching my friends get hoisted on shoulders in exchange for beads, and finding myself lost and walking around in circles screaming “DERBY, I love you!”

That day I somehow found my friends at the third turn before 5 p.m., pretended to know the words to “My Old Kentucky Home,” screamed for horses I couldn’t see and high-fived strangers after learning I had won some money. Thank you, Monarchos — drunkenly I mistook this Derby-winner’s name to read MoreNachos and spent that $70 buying rounds of Mexican-themed appetizers.

I woke up the next morning with a hangover and a hankering to do it all over again. To dress up next Derby, to look like the ladies sitting in the stands. To remember more next year. To take a chance on an underdog. To watch my “little big” city show itself off to the world. To look at pictures of celebrities wearing grandiose hats in Us Weekly and feel my heart swell, knowing that I had shared a moment with Hugh Hefner and Kendra.

Feeling nostalgic, I YouTubed last year’s race and got goosebumps watching those thoroughbreds pound their hooves around the first turn, charge toward the second and go on down the stretch. I listened to the crowd rumble. I pictured myself squealing ”Go, baby, go!”

I almost cried.

But I guess there’s always next year.

So have fun for me … and Happy Derby!