The 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby was only my second experience at a horse race, preceded only by the Kentucky Oaks the day before. Nothing anyone could have told me would have prepared me for what was about to come when I woke up way too early to get into “Derby attire.” It was finally race day and it was time to make the drive up to Louisville for the most exciting two minutes in sports.
Simply walking into Churchill Downs on Derby Day can give you a glimpse into the storied past. The “Derby attire” that I mentioned, yeah, that entails a lot of old-timey style with a few modern touches thrown in. Hats are everywhere, on men and women alike. Bowties with matching pocket squares are a staple. The whole scene is painted in bright colors on ties, on hats, on dresses, on jackets, on shirts, on pants, and on shoes. In what seemed to be true Derby style, nearly everyone in sight was gripping a julep, a cigar, or a wagering ticket, if not all three. All this, at about 9:30 AM, mind you. Never have I seen a crowd so rowdy this early in the morning.
With that being said, the rowdiness was contagious. As soon as you walk through the gates there is a program booth, begging you to jump right in and throw some money down on the first race, just to see how your day is going to go. Just past that you get to walk past tents and booths filled with mint juleps (and various other alcoholic beverages), cigars, and memorabilia. Once you’ve made your way past all that, you finally see the first wagering windows, with hundreds of people in line, all vying to place their bets on either race one or race twelve. I got to be right in the middle of them all, placing bets for a friend and sometimes for myself. It was a completely new experience for me, having never gambled on something like this or anything for that matter. During the races, you get the rollercoaster of excitement and then (usually) the inevitable disappointment when that long shot you bet on falls behind in the final stretch. But it’s all okay because the long shot that didn’t fall behind yesterday is funding your betting for the day, and you’re in the same boat as everybody else there. A wash is a win at the Derby.
Fast forward from the first race to about 45 minutes before the Derby itself. Hours have gone by, many drinks have been consumed, many stogies have been smoked, and many bets have been placed. This is when you truly experience the Kentucky Derby. Coming out to my seat, I noticed a lot of people had gotten themselves one last drink or cigar before the race, as though that was the only right way to enjoy the race. The tension starts to build at this point. The enormous TV screen starts showing snippets of information on the horses, the trainers, and the jockeys. Finally, we were all asked to direct our attention to the University of Louisville marching band as they played. “My Old Kentucky Home.” I’ve always been fond of the song as a Kentucky native, but the state pride made it oh so much better at an event attended by people from across the nation and the globe. That, along with the national anthem only made the experience grow increasingly real until it was time to race. Finally, the one melody I haven’t mentioned yet, the iconic call to the post, capped off the musical delight before the race. Although you hear the call to the post 11 times before the Kentucky Derby, there is something magical about hearing it when the bugler is calling out 20 of the best horses in the world for the biggest horse race around. The jockeys then make their way around the track and into the stalls, and it’s on.
Right from the start, the excitement is at a high, and it only rises over the following two minutes. Everyone is standing on their seats, trying to get a glimpse of the future winners and losers of the Derby. There are cries of encouragement for nearly every number, 1-20, hoping for a little bit of a cash prize after a long day of betting. “Come on 10!” “Go 16, you got this!” “Hang in there baby, don’t give up!” “It’s a long race, keep it up!” Those sorts of exclamations continued through the entire race and ending with a humorous mix of cheering, gaping mouths, and quite a bit of cursing.
Just like how I started this article about my experience, there truly are no words that I can give you to describe just how incredible the most exciting two minutes in sports are in person. I can only tell you that there is no doubt I will be back and that I will encourage you to experience it for yourself with everything in me if asked. There truly is no other experience like it.
Always Dreaming may have won the Kentucky Derby, but in all honesty, anyone in attendance was a winner for sharing such an honored tradition. Do yourself a favor and make plans to attend the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby. Plan your visit here!
Relive the Derby as the smoke, mud, mint juleps and money flow while Always Dreaming’s dreams came true!