Talk Derby to Me: The Infield Experience
For most sports fans, spring does not truly arrive until the crack of the bat is heard on Opening Day or a golfer is seen addressing his putt on Amen Corner. But in Louisville, spring comes a little late. You know the cliché: the best things in life are worth waiting for. Well, if you're a native Louisvillian, like myself, that wait pays big like 100-1 longshot big the first weekend in every May.
Of course, I'm talking about the Kentucky Derby, an event every sports fan should experience at least once. Wondering what it's like to be there? Not on Millionaire's Row, mind you. We're talking about joining the masses on the infield, where the real action is. Look no further this local is here to give you a primer built on a lifetime of marinating in all things Derby.
It starts when your first-grade class picks the winners on the Friday before Derby. It continues when you're asked to carry the legs of an entire hog to be roasted during one of the epic Derby parties that people host at their homes all over Louisville. It stays strong as you get your driver's license and try to make it to as many of the ancillary Derby events concerts, 5-mph steamboat races down the Ohio River, parades, food festivals, hole-in-one contests, you name it as possible. And it breaks out into a full gallop when you see those Twin Spires in the distance and realize you are about to, for the first time, DO DERBY!
Keep in mind, these words won't do Derby justice, but then again, unless you're sharing a fifth of Old Granddad and sunscreen with the good Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (R.I.P. and Mahalo, Good Doctor) while watching cops in riot gear break up a fight involving six girls in the infield, nothing really will.
With that said, let's saddle up!
Derby: That's it: "Derby." Not "Kentucky Derby" that's like calling Pele by his full name. If you have to explain which Derby you're talking about, you might as well go to an OTB. Nothing will make you stand out like a fat jockey more than saying "Kentucky Derby" at Churchill Downs. For savvy vets, it's just "Derby." The "Kentucky Derby" represents the greatest two minutes in sports. "Derby" represents the best day in sports. Oh, and when you get to town, you'll be in Louavull, not Louisville.
Infield: What Bourbon Street is to Mardi Gras, the infield is to Derby. Churchill Downs and its moneymen have seen fit to raise the entry cost to $40, but that hasn't stopped approximately 70,000 of your closest friends and relatives and believe me, a few too many of the infield denizens are related from filing in every year. It even has a Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome feel to it (minus the awful Tina Turner theme song). While the moneyed crowd with their blazers and elaborate hats hobnob on the other side of the track, they file the unwashed throngs of people under the track and into the infield. For most people, the memory of that rush they feel as they walk beneath the track, high-fiving people they've never met before in a tunnel well, that's the last thing they'll remember.
In my heyday, it cost $20 to get into the infield, and once you got in, you made a mad dash to the
Third Turn: I don't know the history behind it, but for years the under-30 set has occupied the Third Turn. If you want to catch the 42-year-old grandmother wearing a "Talk Derby to Me" tank top, you'll need to find another turn. The Third Turn is all about newbies passed out by race 4, collegians catching up with old high school classmates before passing out by race 7, and the post-college crowd drawing on all of the above by the Derby.
It's always fun to try to guess the time of the Utter Depravity Point of Inflection. It's that priceless 25 minutes when the crowd goes from a bit too giddy (this can be seen in shirtless guys giving simultaneous "whoooo-hooos" and hugs to other shirtless guys) to just downright lewd (this can be heard in constant demands for, ah, "mammalian exhibitions"). When you hear those requests, you might as well throw down a $20 on the nudity and lewdity exacta, because the crowd has made the turn.
Everybody has his or her favorite "Third Turn Moment." Is my favorite moment when the cops in riot gear stormed the nearby fort made entirely of coolers (apparently a group of frat guys had used Fort Igloo to stage Operation Fruit Toss, hucking citrus in every direction)? Nah. It had to be the time I saw a long-lost buddy from grade school being wheeled around the infield in the back of grocery cart! If he was awake, he wasn't letting on. How somebody "smuggles" a Kroger Kart into the infield is a great question. An even better question is what my old buddy was doing with a sick sunburn and two massive gold chains around his neck.
Coolers: See, the infield has this rule. If you want to get pie-eyed with the ponies, you'll do it on their terms or at least in theory. Not content with taking $40 out of your wallet, they'd also like you to pay a pretty penny for alcohol $8 a beer. Being the nice people that Churchill Downs are, though, they let you bring in your own food. So every year, with the amount of time, ingenuity and expertise usually reserved for bong repair and nanoscience labs, Derby-goers find ways of sneaking alcohol in via their coolers.
The go-to method is to put ice in the cooler, pour two handles of vodka and voilà "melted ice!" Another oldie is to spike all manner of fruit with liquor. There are few things better than seeing the inebriated unaware of orange quarters still lodged in their gums. So while the "No Alcohol" rule, like so many well-intentioned ordinances, sounds good in theory, in practice it results in Kappas Gone Wild by 4:00 p.m and for the record, they've been going wild in the infield long before digital video cameras came around.
The Race: Ummm you won't see it. Not if you are in the infield anyway. Heck, most people in the infield don't even know it's going on. You'll hear some screaming once the race begins, but by that point, you'll just think it's another fight, or maybe the crowd's reaction when they found out they just ran out of Mint Juleps. If you're really ambitious, you can follow the screaming much like the crowd doing the Wave, only with cheers instead of hands and keep a rough gauge of where the horses are. But consider yourself warned: if you want to see the horses on Derby day, don't do the infield. When the bathroom line is longer than the betting line, you know where the infield's priorities lie.
Mint Julep: You really can't smuggle a Mint Julep in, but you can bring some "gas for that fire," as they say. Churchill Downs makes thousands of the signature drink on Derby Day, but sometimes they aren't afraid to short-arm the bourbon bottle. That's why it's imperative to bring your own Action Flask to grease the gears. And for the love of God, nothing screams "Rookie!!!" like the guy/gal who keeps each souvenir glass that the Mint Julep comes in. While the glass is nice and lists every previous Derby winner, it also marks you as a first-timer and someone to avoid like the plague in the betting line ("How much would I make on the white horse if he comes in second?"). So if you want to keep a glass, fine, but don't be that person walking around with six.
If you feel the need to follow the races and go to the infield, here's what I'd suggest. Pick your horses the night before. First thing you do when you get to the infield is place your bets. File those tickets in a dark place in your wallet. Then go do as the Louisvillians do. Don't worry, you still won't see any horses, but you've bet on the race and you can watch the replays the next day on TV. Then make one final bet with your friends on who won't make it home with the group you came in. No group of people has ever gone to the infield and left with the same group intact. You might have less people as you leave the infield. Heck, you might have picked up some more, but it won't be the same group you started with. Guaranteed.
Millionaire's Row: Half the fun of Derby for me is to get detached from the hullabaloo and take it all in from a distance. Don't get me wrong, I love Louisville. I really do. But if Hip decided to attack the axis of Fashion and Fame, the 'Ville would be nowhere near the frontlines. And that's fine with me.
But as with most places, there is a certain segment with the local media happily throwing gas on the bonfire that's always trying to prove just how cosmopolitan Louisville is. That's where Millionaire's Row comes in. It's the level on the homestretch of Churchill Downs reserved for the Equinati owners, trainers, etc. It's also where they put the famous people. The local media love to fawn over who shows up each year. It's Louisville's collective, misguided litmus test of popularity.
Sometimes it's a hit (meaning relevant, famous people), with the likes of Jack Nicholson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Halle Berry and P. Diddy all stopping by in the last five years or so, but more often it's a murder-me row of passed-over Hollywood Squares. I'll take Delta Burke for the win!
For every Nicholson, there's a Don Johnson, Dixie Carter, and that guy from Simon & Simon (no, not the blonde one the bald one). Basically, it's CBS's primetime lineup circa '89. But as pathetic as it is to see the media breathlessly asking where Dixie Carter got her hat, it still makes me laugh.
6:00 a.m.: What 4:20 p.m. is to stoners, 6:00 a.m. is to Louisvillians during Derby Week. 6:00 a.m. is closing time for bars. So, for that one week, the bars don't really even close. It's a free-for-all. All the good bands, or at least as good as bands are today, show up that week as well. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if My Morning Jacket decided to rent out an 18-wheeler, knock out a side and just drive around the 'Ville rocking the unsober masses this year.
If that doesn't yank your chain, there's probably a Nickelback/3 Doors Down double-bill at Phoenix Hill Tavern that will. It might make perfect sense to stop by and mock that show, but as I can painfully attest by some weird alchemy of goodtime spring vibes, live music, a Coors Party Ball, Tevas and Derby what you set out to ridicule now has you in the front row giving that wavy, pointy finger to the guitarist as he rips off a bad (but at the time, soooooooooo gooooooooood) solo.
Pendennis Club: Louisville's answer to Bushwood Country Club. It's a club that for 364 days a year stinks of old money, and where drinking before lunch isn't necessarily taboo. But for that 365th day a year, the Pendennis Club throws the best post-Derby bash. You won't see J-Lo, Giselle or Colin Farrell being ushered in, but in keeping with the Millionaire's Row spirit of "hey, we're somewhat hip!" you will get all the reality TV show retreads.
The Oaks: If Derby is the horse race for America, Oaks (held the day before) is the horse race for Louisville. Back in the day, Oaks used to be a little Friday of racing before all hell broke loose the next day. People were more subdued and congenial at Oaks, if for no other reason than any antics were sure to be seen by a neighbor or cousin. With the riff-raff from Mardi Gras and Springer Break still making their way to Louisville, the locals knew to get to Churchill Downs for all the trappings of Derby before Churchill Downs' parking lot was awash in out-of-state plates.
But somewhere along the way, someone let out the 'Ville's secret (probably a Hoosier) and the Oaks blew up. It used be that the infield was opened up only for Derby, but now they open it up on Oaks, too and it's packed.
Two Minutes To Post: The best tip I can give you for Derby Day (besides praying to Helios that he bless the day with plentiful rays) is to just let it happen because it will. Countless throngs have shown up in Louisville that weekend only to try to do too much, in too little time. It's hard not to get caught up in the frenzy and bedlam that makes Derby so great, but if you can pull it together, take that minute or two to just look around. The sun beaming down, the women regaling in their hats, the men in their blazers (or no shirts at all if you're in the infield), the old-timers trading tips by the paddock and basically the camaraderie of over 100,000 people celebrating the biggest party in sports. And there's no better time to have that reflection then when they cue up the biggest tearjerker in the sports jukebox, Stephen Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home."
So follow my advice and you can be a winner (or at least place) at this year's Run for the Roses. Derby won't disappoint, it never does.
Oh, and NEVER BET THE DERBY FAVORITE!
Grellan Harty is, obviously, a Louisville native. He has worked as an editor for NBA.com and FoxSports.com.
This is a reprise of an article that originally appeared in 2006.