Run From the Roses: The Perfect Derby Issue

Apr 23, 2008 at 12:04 am

The Perfect Derby Issue™
Some of us are glass half-full types. Some of us are half-empty. That is, of course, a perfect segue into talking about the

Kentucky Derby And All That It Entails: Illustrated by Joe Welsh
Kentucky Derby And All That It Entails: Illustrated by Joe Welsh

If you’re half full and happy about it, LEO’s Perfect Derby Issue is probably not your cup of bourbon. Because we’re mostly half-empty.

But there’s no reason to fret, race fans. If you are half full, there is more than ample fodder for you in every other damn media outlet in this sleepy southern town. Angie Fenton and her posse have got you covered.

Velocity’s got you covered. HerStyle’s got you covered (if you are of the proper affluence — if not, try the new and “improved” Scene!). Louisville magazine’s got you covered. Today’s Woman’s got you covered. Hell, the Apartment News has got you covered. Gary and Melissa, Scott and Dawne, Dave and Elizabeth, Rick and Vicki, Terry and Francene — they all have got you covered when it comes to fashion, events, happenings, celebs, hangers-on, gummy twins, crowd control, the drunk tank, and so on and so forth ad nauseam.

(Not that we’re bitter about it, although we think we know what Barack Obama really meant.)

Now, if you are a glass half-empty sort — acknowledged or closeted — well, we can talk. What we’re sayin’ here is that, you know, this city tries a bit too hard at all this Derby stuff. Gotta look good, literally and figuratively. Gotta get to the right parties. Gotta interface with the stars. Gotta have a winner. Gotta entertain. Gotta get that last head of romaine. Before you know it, the damn thing’s passed and you never even saw a horse. That’s just wrong.

Gotta, gotta, gotta … All together now, primal scream: KDAATIE!!!!

Yep, these pages are full of mostly cranky and impolitic personal ramblings about Derby. We do have affection for the race itself, but there’s not much here in the way of HOW TO CRASH THAT CELEBRITY PARTY, HOW TO ASSEMBLE THE PERFECT DERBY OUTFIT or HOW TO FIGURE OUT EXACTLY WHICH SHIT TO BUY TO MAXIMIZE YOUR PERSONAL DERBY EXPERIENCE.

All of which, in our view, makes this The Perfect Derby Issue™. You can thank us whenever you shake that hangover.

The weight
When I think Derby, I think pressure cooker.

I think of the people who gotta have what they gotta have, god knows what that is, but look how tense they are, how adamant, I goddamn need it, I’ll pay for it, I’ve got money right here, see, clothes, accommodations, access, the black market.

I think of when I was finally of age to wade into

the Derby miasma: Kentucky Derby And All That It Entails
the Derby miasma: Kentucky Derby And All That It Entails
on my own, and that guy in the leisure suit in the bathroom by the hotel bar nursing a bloody nose. I had no idea.

I think of my father, who they call Mainie for reasons I’ll never know, and his brother Curly (naturally) who had their own Derby routine, subtle but rigid, food, parking, food, and how much mileage I’ve gotten writing about those two over the years.

I think of my bellhop days and how I completely screwed my big tip weekend by somehow breaking the clutch pedal on a VW bus and then crunching the front end of a Bonneville and being summarily relieved of track transportation duties. Still can’t drive a stick.

I’ve had good times at Derby and I’ve had bad times, and as much as I hate to love and love to hate it, the actual thing of it still crinkles my throat when they bring those horses out on the track.

I think of how our streets seethe, the sex, the beats, the out-of-town drivers who amuse me, the folks who bring out their best rides, open tops — last week on Fourth Street I saw a modified Caddie no bigger than a four-wheeler and a burnt orange Ferrari with a bunch of Jesus shit spray painted all over it — and how that doesn’t seem weird at all at this time of year.

I think about the close mingling of the fatuous with the flatulent, insulated for a fortnight but uncontainable on Derby Day. And, yeah, I think of that one guy pummeling that other guy as they came off the infield after the big race, Fusaichi Pegasus, baby, and how the blood flew everywhere, on those dainty dresses and silk ties, and how no amount of collective shock could umbrella that shit, and how that image is inextricably linked to the grinding headache I’d had all day that finally exploded that night in spells of translucent blue-green spew that went on for two days and led to utter dehydration. An unfortunate association that I’d like to forget.
Like I said, it can be a pressure cooker. —Cary Stemle

‘Derby is love’
I have always wanted to write a piece about the Derby where I could cite this quote from “Mean Streets”: Robert De Niro (as Johnny Boy) looks down from the rooftops of Little Italy at the street festival of San Gennaro and says:

“I hate this festival wit’ a passion.”

The funny thing is, I don’t hate the Derby. (Or San Gennaro, for that matter — I went in the fall of 1976, and it was great: funky, crowded and the first time I ever tasted a sausage-and-pepper sandwich.)

But there’s a perpetual argument in our family about leaving town Derby weekend — taking advantage of Oaks days off from school and work to take a long weekend somewhere. It’s my wife’s idea, always — she didn’t grow up here, and so she can’t understand the necessity of spending the first Saturday in May someplace where they broadcast from the track all day, whether or not you watch it. The world’s attention is, for one moment, focused on the place I spend all my time thinking about and trying to explain. I’ve just got to be here.

But I hate writing about the Derby wit’ a passion.

This is because I’m not a horse guy — the horse stuff always has its own intrinsic and metamorphosing interest — I’m a culture guy, and as far as I can tell, Derby culture changes slowly, and rarely for the better. (Kid Rock is just Zsa Zsa in a muscle tee.) I first realized the hopelessness of me writing about it when a deceased Courier-Journal publication called Around Downtown sent me to cover the opening of the downtown Chow Wagon in 1985 or ’86.

Standing on that square of asphalt (this was somewhere near the Greyhound Station, more than a decade before the advent of Waterfront Park), I felt the hopeless vertigo of a writer with nothing to perceive, a reporter with nothing to ask: “Say, you, young man — yes you, in the striped shirt, with the powdered sugar sprinkled down your tie — no, go ahead, wash the elephant ear down with a long swig of Miller draft — ah, yes, I see you mouthing along with ‘West End Girls,’ that is a song for the ages, isn’t it? — anyway, how do you feel about the Chow Wagon coming back? No, go ahead, that’s why they have all these Porta-Potties here. I’ll just go get a sausage-and-pepper sandwich.”

In the piece I wrote, I projected my haplessness onto WHAS-TV’s Chuck Olmstead, whom, I wrote, you could observe in the act of coming up with a way to ask questions about something he and everyone else has covered 10 times before.

But it isn’t just me and Chuck. In 1955, Sports Illustrated sent William Faulkner to cover the Derby, and he wrote a piece that should be taught in every writing class, to show the slow students that even the greatest writers are capable of writing worthless crap, and to demonstrate for the quick ones how to cash in on a reputation.

The piece starts with a self-inflating, obvious series of paragraphs about Kentucky, each of them opening with a needless, flabby inversion: “This saw Boone: the bluegrass, the virgin land rolling westward. … And knew Lincoln too. ... And knew Stephen Foster and the brick mansion of his song. ...” (“Mr. Faulkner, this is Tom Roberts from fact-checking at SI. Did you confirm that the ‘brick mansion’ at Bardstown is in fact capable of forming thoughts and perceptions?”)

A couple of paragraphs later, Faulkner wrote about a morning workout and imagined “the animal dreaming, hoping for that moment at least it looked like

Whirlaway or Citation
Whirlaway or Citation
…” Everybody knows Faulkner drank, but this sentence — with its implicit assumption that horses know and care about the names men give other horses — makes me think Hunter Thompson wasn’t the first talented writer to hit Churchill Downs with a head full of acid. (Speaking of whom: While “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent & Depraved” was the making of HST’s style, there was a desperation behind that piece that tells me he was no stranger to Nold-Olmstead Syndrome.)
Still, Faulkner got to see a Derby, and for all the boredom that induces in a writer — or should induce: Mr. Franzen, consider yourself warned — the race itself is a considerable thing that somehow justifies everything else.

Sometime in the late ’80s, someone who worked at Tewligan’s Tavern wrote on the chalkboard outside the bar “Derby is love.” That’s the best piece of Derby writing ever: Transcendental, nonsensical, sublime. Just like the race, and all that surrounds it. —James Nold Jr.

The true meaning of Derby
I love Derby! Call me a sentimental fool, but there’s just something magical about the whole season. It all started for me when we were kids and Daddy used to take us into the woods to chop down our Derby Tree. But that was a simpler time. Nowadays, people decorate for Derby before I’ve even had a chance to take down my March Madness decorations! But who can blame them? It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

Now that I’m a dad myself, my favorite Derby tradition is taking the kids to the mall to sit on John Asher’s lap. His eyes, how they twinkle! His dimples, how merry! Sure, the kids are terrified at first, but once he gives them a hunk of fried dough and a virgin julep they calm right down and usually don’t need to vomit.

I have to agree with those who say Derby has grown too commercial. Why does horse racing have to be about money? Sometimes I long for a simpler time when Derby brought us all together in a spirit of love, companionship and giving, such as the time we injected grain alcohol into a watermelon with a hypodermic needle, smuggled it into the infield, and shared slices with complete strangers. Now, that’s the true spirit of Derby!

Some say Derby is just too much pressure. Sure, keeping up with Kid Rock’s hysterical antics and worrying whether Dixie Carter’s boobs are going to spill out can be stressful. And watching our governor on national TV is always depressing. Maybe the sun would shine brighter on our old Kentucky home if all the mobsters, B-list celebrities and liquor-addled frat boys stayed away, but nothing sends a message of peace and hope to our war-torn world like the Kentucky Derby, namely: Get wasted, take off your clothes and spend all your money! Woo-hoo!

Merry Derby everyone!—Jim Welp

Derby Haiku Verses
To trainer Bob Baffert —
My hair mentor

Oh, the sun shines bright
On my Old Kentucky Home
And on Baffert’s hair

A halo it’s not
DNA, premature gray
A proud silver crown

Grooming tips revealed
Paul Mitchell Awapuhi
Clairol Shimmer Lights

The backside circus
Unbridled spirit and tongue
White mane, dark glasses

Run, Bob, Run! We hope.
The Derby’s more fun with you
Cracking jokes at dawn.

Messin’ with the press
Or holding court at Jack Fry’s
And they’re off again

—Cindy Lamb

Better to let the mystery be

I’ve never been to the Kentucky Derby. When I moved to Louisville nine years ago, I thought it was just a quick horse race, a one-day kind of event. Then I realized that people start celebrating Derby all the way back in April. They might even start right after St. Patrick’s Day. I think that’s when

the rowdiness begins filling the air: Illustrated by Joe Welsh
the rowdiness begins filling the air: Illustrated by Joe Welsh

Shortly after moving here, I started hearing about the Infield. I became kind of fascinated with this idea of a patch of grass being trampled to death by a sea of drunken guys and girls. Surrounded by a dirt track with horses running in circles on it, ridden by short little guys in bright colored jumpsuits. And rich white folks watching it all, dressed in their pastel finest, throwing away money they don’t need on bets and drinks, while sitting safely away from the masses in elevated seats.

I’m not sure how accurate my vision of the Derby is and I’m not sure I want to find out.
I’m happy just enjoying all the free stuff that goes on during the month-long celebration of running horses. I like watching the Pegasus Parade with cars full of smiling celebrities I’ve never heard of. I like sitting in my Butchertown home and hearing the sounds of a ’70s cover band playing at Waterfront Park. I like watching my neighbors make a killing selling parking spots in their yard to Thunder fans. I like cookouts with mint juleps and Derby pie. I like gathering a group of friends to go to the Chow Wagon for a funnel cake, some ice cream, and maybe a little deep-fried something on a stick. —Hillary Harrison

Forty-four in a row
This will be my 44th consecutive Derby, and 45th overall. My dad took my sister Jean and me to the Derby the year Chateaugay won, in 1963. We stood on one of those concrete benches in the Infield and saw the horses round the final turn  — and then disappear behind the mob of fans along the inside rail as they headed for the finish. It was cool being on the inside of the turn and having them fly around us.

The next year, I missed Northern Dancer’s Derby, but in 1965 a bunch of us teenagers went to the Derby for the first time — you know, without parents. Lucky Debonair won for Bill Shoemaker. We all got sunburned and had a great time. Leaving the track, we walked for blocks and blocks to Ellie Smith’s grandmother’s house, and finally got a ride home. I knew that day I would see every Derby from then on. And I have.

Over the years, you can invent minor categories of Derbies, like the inordinate amount of S-horses that have won in the last few decades — including Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, Swale, Spend a Buck, Silver Charm, Sunday Silence, Strike the Gold, Sea Hero, Smarty Jones and Street Sense, just last spring. And don’t forget Sunny’s Halo. I had him pretty good. I would have had Swaps if I’d been there. But they don’t let six-year-olds bet. You have to be 10 to bet at Churchill Downs. It’s a rule.

Which reminds me of B for Barbaro — my all-time strongest Derby pick. I not only picked Barbaro, I promised he would win big. And he did.

Of course, I also loved Damascus, but you won’t find his name on the Derby mint julep glass. Here’s what happened: They came to the top of the stretch and Shoemaker said Go. But Damascus said No.

Afterwards, Damascus’ trainer Max Hirsch blamed his horse’s loss on the U of L band. For scaring his horse playing “My Old Kentucky Home.” The all-time worst loser’s excuse I ever heard. Worse even than the trainer of Bombay Duck, who complained his horse got hit in the head by a beer can.

My favorite Kentucky Derby ever was Affirmed and Alydar, in 1978. That was just THE most exciting Derby for everybody, with the whole country talking about the rivalry of the two horses. And Laz, and The Kid, and Calumet Farm.

Another favorite was Ferdinand in 1986, with whom trainer Charlie Whittingham won his first Kentucky Derby, and The Shoe his fourth — at a very chancy 17-1. Before the Derby one day, Whittingham, Shoemaker and Doc Harthill were back at the barn yakking it up, and looking on approvingly as a groom rubbed Ferdinand down after a gallop. Shoemaker walked over in front of the horse and then reached up and touched Ferdinand on the nose. Martha Moffett took a snapshot photo of it, and called the famous jockey “Mr. Shoemaker.” They don’t have speed figures for that kind of stuff.

In one of those great East-West rivalry races in 1989, Sunday Silence was pitted against Easy Goer. I was stringing for the The Courier-Journal and wrote about the Derby Week morning when both the two Big Horses were on the track at the same time for their final Derby workouts. But they were a half-a-mile apart! People from the barns were squeezed all along the backstretch fence, craning their necks trying to see both of them — or even one. One was here, and the other way over there around that turn. It was cool to write about.

I also did a story that year about trainer Shug McGaughey, who had Easy Goer and another horse named Awe Inspiring — who finished second and third, respectively, behind Sunday Silence. Shug was holding court for the reporters, but it started to rain and the scribes ran for cover. But Shug knew me a little bit and invited me to come into his office in the barn. It had a nice little heater. Anyone could see what having a dream horse like Easy Goer meant to Shug.

I think it was Foolish Pleasure’s year that Rick Cushing and I copped a couple of seats on the first floor grandstand benches. A pair of very nice ladies had the seats right in front of us. They’d come over from Illinois to take in their first Kentucky Derby. Early in the afternoon, each of them bought a mint julep — which they drank and then stashed their souvenir glasses under their seats. But later in the day some drunk came along and kicked over and shattered their Derby glasses. Those poor ladies were shattered, too. But Rick just reached into a side pocket of his sport coat, where he’d been stacking his own glasses, and immediately made their day by presenting each with a replacement souvenir mint julep glass.

That’s the Derby, too.

In 1984 I helped create the new Kentucky Derby Museum, and in 1998 wrote a book called “The Kentucky Derby: Run for the Roses,” which remains the all-time largest-selling book about the Derby.

But what I like the very most about the Kentucky Derby is how people will come up and ask me something about the Derby — because they like it so much and know I know something about it. They always ask, but don’t really care who my pick is. They just want Derby Talk.
You can’t beat that. —Bill “Willie” Doolittle

Party with no regrets
I attended my first Derby in 1986. This was the infield of old, a large grassy field with only the basics: restrooms, mint julep booths, betting windows. I never found a single friend that day, or even a familiar face.

Weirdoes, drunks, police actions, exposed breasts and open drug use were all I could think of as I walked home from the track that day. I was 16 and felt like I had just spied on what should have been off limits to a 16-year-old sophomore.

My dad asked, “How was it?”

One word. “Awesome.”

I have gone to 10 more Derbys, and never has it been the same experience. I still like to go solo or with a small group (you lose whoever you’re with anyway,) and although press credentials allow access to most of the track, I prefer the infield. My Gannett peers have daily deadlines with strict assignments. I don’t. I float through the scene and try to capture the party in all of its ugly, ugly glory. No hat shot assignments for me, thanks.

There are those in our community who only want to project the highbrow concept of Derby, as if we can propel our southern town into the stratus of nobility in the eyes of an international audience. But most of the non-local TV audience probably sees only the two minutes of the day that count. They never see the grit and the grime of an infield populated by the unwashed, the party that draws the crowd that endures the elements for up to 12 hours.

Last year LEO used one of my 2006 images for its Derby Issue cover, a shot of a twenty-something male with his pants around his ankles, grinning as he struck a Hulk Hogan pose and stared directly into my lens. I was thrilled; I think the photo provides a good summary of the infield scene.

Then I heard that a local “community-based” website’s forums were ripping the image for a negative portrayal of Louisville and negating the assumed elegance of the Derby. The bitter dorks in the forums said the image painted Louisville as a town of hicks and drunks, that out-of-town guests would be offended, and how dare LEO … blah-blah-blah.

I am not a member of that website, so I could not get on and defend the image. Finally someone did make the point that it just conveyed that Derby is a great big party, and that many out-of-towners see it more in the vein of Mardi Gras anyway.

Couldn’t agree more.

Derby is a party. For many of us, the names of horses fade away. Our memories are not of guarded celebrities, shitty hats or even thrilling races. For us the experience is pure pleasure, the chance for Joe Everybody to party under the glow of an international spotlight. The chance for Louisville to show it has some hustle to it.

We are entitled to it. No regrets. —Marty Pearl

Make it Keeneland for me
Considering the number of “Keep Lexington Lame” shirts floating around Louisville, it might be the right time to say Keeneland has better racing than Churchill Downs.

Churchill has history, spectacle and sass — that’s undeniable. But so is the fact that Derby is so intense, you’ll need to wear earplugs for weeks to maintain the peace and quiet. Or maybe, you’ll leave town and return when Louisville is back to normal.

With Keeneland, you see the same jockeys. The sheikhs show up at the horse sale every year, so the track’s prestige is hardly debatable, and it’s one of three in the country that has a horse-racing library.

The difference? Their meets feel less intense. In October and April, Keeneland’s scenic locale — off Versailles Road just outside of downtown Lexington — inspires deliberation and relaxation. You’re not tripping over some frat kid who did his first keg stand, or snapping picture after unfocused picture of a pair of shapely breasts.

Beer still flows, to be sure, and there are the stentorian screams and unbridled enthusiasm as the ponies dash for the finish line. Empty wallets? Check.

I won’t be at the track this year. But October sounds like a right-fine time to watch thoroughbreds. Outside the Watterson. —Mat Herron

The real African-American connection
Being a child of the 1980s, born and raised in West Louisville, you might expect that my sole memories of the Kentucky Derby come from cruising on Broadway. And it’s true; I can’t recall anything noteworthy about the Chow Wagon or Churchill Downs.

Sadly, cruising — that now-defunct accumulation of spruced-up cars, family oriented vendors and wandering pedestrians that once filled Broadway — has voided an entire generation’s historical viewpoint of the Kentucky Derby’s relationship to African-Americans. Before black jockeys became a symbol of dehumanizing minstrelsy for the front lawn of many sophisticated rednecks, they were the premiere athletes of the late 19th century.

Shamefully, Oliver Lewis, who rode Aristides to victory in the inaugural Derby in 1875, is all but forgotten. Fewer still know about the 15-year-old phenomenon Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton, who rode Azra to victory in 1892 — the youngest jockey to win a Kentucky Derby. If you’re lucky, Isaac Murphy, the greatest jockey of all time, who won three straight Derbys, makes the pop culture lexicon. Give credit to historians and the Kentucky Derby Museum for keeping them alive for posterity.

Fast forward more than 100 years. Most of my peers’ anecdotes about this annual equine sprint are anchored to the good, bad and ugly happenings of cruising years past. Broadway is our Derby history archive.

Today, Lonnie Clayton is a 13-year-old kid dancing suggestively with a woman twice his age atop a car, her clothing suggesting she is an exotic dancer. His Aristides is a lime green candy-painted Impala.

I’m not particularly upset that cruising was aborted. Frankly, the arguments against it were better than the ones for keeping it. What I am bitter about is unimaginative city leaders and pigheaded hip-hoppers who have zero understanding of how the Kentucky Derby is related to the African-American community. That history is deep, rich and worth more than the embarrassing image of West Broadway abandoned on days designed to overflow the city with people.

It’s a failure. If it was a horse listed in the Daily Racing Form, it would read DNF.—Phillip Bailey

The Derby made me do it!

Whether or not you subscribe to the two-week celebration of Derby in this city, you have to admit it gives you a blanketed excuse to do bad things.

Q: Wanna grab a beer or four on a Tuesday night?
A: Well, OK, it is Derbytime, I suppose.

Q: Should we have a margarita with our lunch today?
A: It’s Derbytime, why not?

Q: Wanna come back to my place tonight, sugar?
A: It’s Derbytime, twist my arm.

Q: Wanna go on a four-day bender and forget all responsibilities like work, rent and keeping up with “American Idol”?
A: The Derby made me do it!

I can chalk up some of my most questionable decisions to the two weeks leading up to those last two minutes.

There’s definitely an attitude that comes over this city. Perhaps it’s the same fever that is prevalent in New Orleans before Mardi Gras — party hard, recover later.

Do I like the Derby? Sure, it’s exciting to see this city dust itself off and make a good presentation to outsiders who often fall in love with our charm and small-town friendliness. Are there things that bother me about Derby?

Definitely. Seems like the price of everything goes up in late April, and my bars tend to get a bit overcrowded for my taste. I used to immerse myself in all the Derby-related events — the parties, the infield, reporting from Millionaires Row. But after a few years in the fold, nowadays I like to just stand back and observe. But even as a wallflower, trouble and temptation are not out of the equation. Happy hour anyone? —Sara Havens

The Derby Malaise, or the fear of being unoriginal

Stupidity: I once taped a plastic bag full of Jim Beam to the inside of my right thigh, finishing off what was left of the pint well before noon, just as the last strip of duct tape adhered itself to a thick patch of leg hair that, soon after a bout of wild shouting and the cursing of certain deities, would no longer be connected to my body. A hangover as substantial as some Derby traditions was to follow.

Ingenuity: I know of a man who arrived at the Churchill Downs turnstiles with a half-drunk bottle of whiskey in one hand, a ticket to the infield in the other. A guard stopped him, explaining the ban on outside booze. “Fine,” he said, tipping the bottle to his lips and emptying it before stopping. The guard shoved the deranged fan through the gates amid gasps from some nearby. It was iced tea. The bottle of whiskey was tucked into the waistband of his shorts.

Nostalgia: A friend from college decided one year to drive down from Ohio and experience Derby for the first time. By 2 a.m. she had passed out drunk and we were trying to decide just how irresponsible it would be to leave her in the car — locked, of course — while we had a few drinks at Cahoot’s. We did not attend the Derby that year, didn’t get out of the Highlands in fact, but she swore she’d gotten the gist.

Professionalism: A press pass is worthless here, now. The real story isn’t within eyeshot of the twin spires.

Monotony: If you see a story about the Derby that you can prove is original in the next two weeks, e-mail me. I will pay you — in bags of whiskey. —Stephen George

The whiskey holidays
Ahh, the whiskey holidays. Lemme tell you how it is (a common whiskey-laden intro, by the way): Kentucky is known for race horses and whiskey — excuse me, bourbon — and Derby is the perfect marriage of the two. As if fermenting the ubiquitous sweetener wasn’t enough, we went and added simple syrup for the mint julep.

Bourbon makes people want to fight and gamble — hence, the infield. And after a couple shots of corn liquor, everyone slurs the word “Louisville” like a local. —Britany Baker