Rooftop access, infield excess and the most unpredictable day in sports: Three LEO writers recap the 143rd Kentucky Derby

May 8, 2017 at 2:13 pm
143rd Kentucky Derby

Michael Powell: The middle of Race 10, a little over two hours before the day's marquee event, is approximately the time I realized I might've made an error in judgement — not an uncommon feeling with regard to the Derby.

A heaping plate of smoked ribs sat on my lap. My cohort noshed on a basket of freshly-fried wings made just for him. We sat on a leopard print couch, matching a leopard print rug in the living room, and watching the ponies on a vintage projection television. Carl sat across from us not saying a word — he was preoccupied with his rib dinner, too. Considering the attention he gave the meal, I had to ask which sides he got when we first arrived. Our host, Brenda, informed me that the beans and mac 'n cheese are the right move. Done, I want that.

It took us all of five minutes to park only a few blocks away from Churchill Downs, after (presumably) a resident guided us toward one of his spots, partitioned by orange cones and a lawn chair, for a few bucks. Walking toward the track, I spotted a handmade sign advertising fish anyway you want it, sausages and ribs, all the great barbecue staples. A young man pokes his head out the door, headphones around his neck. “Y’all want some food?" Hmm, spend $10 on round stale corn chips topped with gelatinous cheese goop at Churchill, or chow down on a toothsome home-cooked meal, whose evidence of delectability occupied my entire nasal cavity. Yes, we'd love to eat with you. "C'mon in," he said motioning us in. This is common in South Louisville — folks in the community cook out and welcome Derby revelers into their homes. A veritable block party, although one that requires the purchase of a permit. I asked Brenda if the city was really enforcing it, and she offered to show me the papers. No need, I was just curious. The rain came down as we ate. The kids kept playing in the yard.

And that's when I realized my mistake. Perhaps I didn't really want to go to the 143rd Kentucky Derby. This is much more my scene.

But hell, I got this media credential with all these letters granting me access to different parts of the track, each like a hidden door. I should at least pop over, especially having never attended. Hunter Thompson's apt description of "the drunken mob scene" more or less didn’t scare me away, but traditionally gave me pause about going, as a guy who feels like Baxter Avenue should be considered a terrorist state on the weekend. Maybe I should take a page out of the Gonzo playbook and drop a couple hits of LSD. Because no young writer ever tries to impersonate Hunter S., especially at the Derby. No way.

The Kentucky Derby, as one of the most prominent sporting events in the world, bestows both an international prestige and robust economic boost to our fair city. But does it suck? Passing through Gate 1, a stunningly-beautiful day surprising all local meteorologists out the gate like a dark horse, contrasted with the giant human trough of the Paddock. Mud and skunky beer stink everywhere, like a shitty Woodstock sponsored by Vineyard Vines. Odious Chads stumble about, maneuvering the Bud Light bottle between their hands to snap a selfie, always a couple inches from puking on their Squirrel Nut Zippers cosplay. The women have thrown in the towel and removed their shoes (flip flops were for sale just outside the entrance), waving the white flag toward the filth. An unrelenting bustling between the stands, there is nowhere simply to duck out and catch your bearings or even look at a map. You'd have an easier time taking a seat at 42nd and Broadway.

Referencing the credential dangling around my neck, I scan my options to figure out where to watch. Badges with an "O" let me onto the "7th Floor Mezzanine, Rooftops." Rooftops, huh? And I'm finding a Stairway to Seven.

"If you want to," was the response of the guard standing post in front of a cavernous concrete stairwell adjacent to the reserved media section. Glancing up, I see folks in banquet uniforms enjoying a breather on the steps, escaping the human comedy. It turns out, even if you're physically active, climbing some ten flights of stairs after consuming one — or two — mint juleps really taxes your respiration. A few minutes of vertical sprinting, winded, I see sunlight breaking through the threshold at the top of the dark corridor, walking through to... a utility roof. Not a terrace or patio or observation deck, but a roof rife with ducts, ventilation systems, and asphalt. A straight-up roof. And of the couple handful of people who found themselves here, I'm the only one not in uniform — police, fire, FEMA (!), and even a couple SWAT team scatter around the ledge. It seemed anyone who didn't have a specific post to guard ended up here to watch, with me, the longhair. Really, truly glad I didn't method act my Thompson angle and eat acid.

(photo by Michael Powell) - photo by Michael Powell
photo by Michael Powell
(photo by Michael Powell)

And it was here, just shy of the 6:46 p.m. post time, I witnessed something amazing, seven stories above the stands and infield — total silence before the Derby gates swung open. I posted up at the corner of the roof nearest those gates. There was a palpable energy and enchantment in the air then, reverberating throughout the race, as hulking muscular beasts on basal wood legs glided across a beige field, reflecting a glossy sheen from the day's earlier rains. It was powerful and indescribable. I get it. Sure, Derby is a shit show, but it's also a bit of magic — our magic — as well. I won't soon forget that feeling.

Though it was as fleeting as the race itself.

I snapped out of my trance, exiting the stairwell, back onto the second floor concourse. Drunken stumbling, people waddling like a Dreidel spin, cursing their loses — welcome to the aftermath of the most exciting two minutes in the world. A floral and spring white Derby hat — sad and discarded — sat atop a mountain of beer cans, half-smoked cigars and crumbled black garbage bags. That seems about right.

Scott Recker: Two years ago I said I’d never go back, but I found myself in the infield on Saturday, walking in a continuous circle with thousands of other people, buying drinks, placing bets and trying not to slip in the mud — a classic Derby scenario that can somehow both be wildly fun and pretty close to pointless. We got a surprisingly-nice day, but one downfall of rain kept everything wet and muddy enough to make certain sections of the infield a minefield, which made the wagering windows at the bottom of a hill an adventure to get to. (Yet, this Derby set a gambling record, with Churchill taking in more than $200 million in bets.) Obviously, the rain also meant that large portions of the lawn turned into a late-afternoon Slip N Slide for stumblers, so a few people got covered in mud. My favorite part of the Derby is after the main race, when everyone tries to leave the infield at the same time, and a large group of people simultaneously realize that they’re not going anywhere — all stuck in the same spot. They start making friends, having dance-offs, singing, breaking chairs for sport, running on top of the portable toilets, et cetera. It’s basically a vortex of every strange infield story packed into a 45-minute window. And since Derby is usually more fun to tell stories about than to actually be at, I stuck to the infield, a place I’m already telling people that I’m never going back to, but it’s probably a lie.

(photo by Nik Vechery) - Nik Vechery
Nik Vechery
(photo by Nik Vechery)

Minda Honey: If you read my column, then you know I just dropped back down in the Bluegrass state in August. Before leaving the Derby City for a city by the sea, I’d only been to the Derby once, while I was an undergrad in college, and that was to work it. I was an elevator girl on the old Millionaire’s Row. There were only two floors, so the elevator had only one button, but some outsourced event planning company or another felt it worthwhile to pay me $20 an hour under the table to push that button. At one point, Evander Holyfield stepped onto my elevator and told me I had nice hands – quite the compliment coming from a professional boxer.

Life can begin to look bleak when you’ve spent 12-hours standing in an elevator. The elevator was tucked out of the way a little bit in an area that basically created a miserable, freezing wind tunnel. So, it would open on the first floor to gray and cold, close its door, rise one floor and open again to opulence and sunshine and bright spring colors and enough feathers in hats to Frankenstein together your own Big Bird. And I belonged to neither world. So, it should be no surprise I totally botched Derby this year. Let’s tally up the ways:

1) I woke up at 7 a.m. to the sound of rain, which made me regret agreeing to go to the Derby. I still got California in my bones, and in California it’s completely acceptable to cancel plans on account of rain. But Louisville’d up and got out of bed.

2) For some reason, I thought the actual Derby race took place at noon. Incorrect. It wasn’t going to go down until nearly 7 p.m. Apparently, some of y’all use the Derby as an excuse to day drink. I waltzed into the track around 3 p.m.

3) I didn’t buy a hat. Look, I love a good occasion to get gussied up, but I hate buying shit that I’m only going to wear once. I can’t really rock a Derby hat any other day of the year, so I went without. But you best believe I will be wearing my dress again and again — it was pink with cheetahs printed all over it and tied up in a big bow around my neck.

(photo by Kathryn Harrington) - photo by Kathryn Harrington
photo by Kathryn Harrington
(photo by Kathryn Harrington)

4) I didn’t realize Wiltshire Pantry was closing at noon. So, I wasn’t quite finished getting ready when they called me about my Derby Box. Which meant that after zipping across town, I had to paint my toes hunched over in the front seat of my car. I decided to just paint my big toe and the toe next to it on each foot because that’s all you could see when I had my heels on.

5) But I was wearing my flip-flops by the time I got to the Derby, so the three unpainted toes on each foot were completely visible. I parked at the fairgrounds and, when I realized how far I needed to walk to catch the shuttle, I put my flip-flops on and just never got around to putting my heels back on once I was at the track.

6) I didn’t really know anyone who went to the Derby, or the people I knew were in areas I didn’t have access to. I ended up sitting alone, eating my bomb-ass Derby box and wishing the wind would stop shifting cigar smoke in my direction.

7) When I did run into some other writers I knew, it was about 45 minutes until the big race. As we settled into a box, they asked me if I’d parked in the media lot. I didn’t know there was one. They looked at me in big-eyed horror and suggested that if I hadn’t placed a bet, I leave immediately to avoid hours of traffic. So, I did.

I made it to my friend’s Derby party in The East End in time to catch the race. Although I could have seen the race in person, I think I ended up having a better time squished in on my friend’s couch with a homemade margarita in hand. The Downs is where the Derby is, but the fun is where your friends are.