Ladies donning big hats and dapper gentlemen gathering for the Kentucky Derby has been a Louisville tradition for 139 years. The vast grounds at Churchill Downs hosts celebrities, athletes, dignitaries, successful businessmen and women, as well as locals, visitors, and hard-core gamblers annually the first weekend in May.
The Kentucky Derby was unlike any sporting event I’ve ever been to. It is an all day party, and when I say all day, I mean ALL day. Some attendees arrive when the gates open at 8 and don’t leave until after the last race around 8. That’s 12 full hours of straight drinking, gambling, people watching, mingling, eating, and whatever else you can think of doing across Churchill Downs’ 115 acres.
When I arrived in Louisville I did not know what to expect. Of course I’ve knew about the Kentucky Derby, but not having known anyone who has attended, I was walking into one of the hottest events of the year anxiously excited about the experience.
There are two areas in Churchill Downs and their crowds are completely different. You have the grounds, an area that is open to those who purchased a general admission ticket for a very reasonable $40, and then you have the club areas, reserved for those who paid thousands of dollars for reserved seating and exclusive amenities. I wanted to spend time in both areas to experience the Derby from both perspectives.
You’re likely to see anyone or anything in the areas that housed those with general admission tickets. That area, not suprisingly was much more diverse, but let me clarify diverse. If I had to guess, I would say “Derby Diverse” is 100 to 1, but like the cheap seats at a football or basketball game it’s where you find your most hard-core racing fans and gamblers. They find a bench close to the wager stations, with wager book and pencil in hand paying close attention to each race. For these Derby attendees this experience is about one thing and one thing only, the horses.
In contrast, the club area which was 6 stories and houses the famous Millionaires Row, is much more like a social gathering of the “elite.” You’ll find some serious horse racing fans up there, but they are far out numbered by men and women in their finest “southern” apparel sipping on mint juleps, walking around trying to see and be seen. I was amazed at how much this area was like the club…well a different kind of club, but the club none the less. You had your women dressed in tight dresses and high heels hanging around the VIP entrance in hopes of catching the eye of one of the many celebrities, or better yet being invited up. You had men spending thousands of dollars on alcohol and gambling to impress women, and of course to compete with the other men. You had LONG lines at the bar and the bathrooms, and because of the rain, a large crowd packed into area where it was so crowded it was impossible to walk without stepping on a few toes. For the amenities, I must say I enjoyed the club area more, but must point out that I was one of very few black people in the area, and an occasional disapproving stare let me know it.
There were about 10 races that led up to the main event…the Kentucky Derby. The anticipation surrounding this race was unlike anything I’ve experienced in ANY sport. Everyone that was hanging around the concessions crowded in the stands or the infield. I was shocked at how fast my heart was racing. I’d never been to a horse race before, and other than an amazing interview with jockey Kevin Krigger, I had no invested interest in the winner. There was an electricity in the air that could be felt by all in attendance. From the entrance of the horses, to the all familiar horned call to the post, every one stood in anticipation of a race that would only last 120 seconds. The feeling during the race, as the eyes of over 100,000 in Churchill Downs were affixed upon a race that even the most avid horse racing fan could only guess its outcome, was of collective elation. It’s an experience that I would encourage any sports fan to participant in just once, and as long as you’re with a group of people you enjoy you’re bound to have a great time. I for one, plan on making what’s called the most exciting two minutes in sports an annual trip.