Commentary

Derby brings life to lists

Updated: March 5, 2013, 10:45 PM ET
By Jay Cronley | Special to ESPN.com

Churchill DownsHorsephotos.comA visit to illustrious Churchill Downs is a must to add to any list.

The Kentucky Derby is a spectacle that goes on numerous lists, chief among them being:

1. Bucket list
2. Frat-sorority list
3. Creditor list

Bucket list priorities, or things to do before you're too feeble or too dead, are activities usually attempted by pre-seniors who are at least slightly out of their element: men and women zip-lining over gorges with their eyes slammed shut; couples white-water rafting down the Snake River, wrapped up like the Michelin tire man and surrounded by guides; people sitting huddled together, top deck, last two seats in the end zone, at next year's outdoor Super Bowl in Jersey; people touring Hawaii by chopper; couples with front-row seats off the turn for home at the Indy 500.

At least at the Kentucky Derby, people living out a dream experience can keep their eyes open.

The last-call trip market is huge, but delicate to advertise.

Nobody wants to put up a sign: Welcome Deathbed Customers.

But there should be special considerations, like lines for the chatty, for people who don't quite know what they're doing.

Bucket list or fantasy-come-true list fans will be easy to spot at this year's Kentucky Derby. They'll be the ones who clog up the betting lines, wishing to visit with anybody before betting $4 on the second choice to place. They'll have a mint julep in one hand and a tip sheet in the other and could be wearing a Minnie Pearl hat. They'll have reserved seats where you can't see a thing.

The frat-sorority list, things to do before you graduate, is all about the infield.

The Kentucky Derby infield is the garden spot for those who couldn't afford Cabo for spring break.

The Kentucky Derby infield is the garden spot for those who couldn't afford Cabo for spring break.

This Derby, live and in person, is less about serious betting than most gambling destinations. That's because of what makes it such a party, the crowd size. Placing a bet at Churchill can be like trying to play blackjack on the subway. The social side of the day, which includes chatting up, swells in the elevated seats and being a face in the crowd with the railbirds or with the infield rascals can dominate your time.

It's about 60/40 social work over horse talk in the dress-up seats, and about 80/20 play over handicapping in the infield.

Most racetrack infields look like the Oklahoma panhandle; they are closed unless you're looking for spare tractor parts.

The most commonly heard things in the Derby infield are "Borrow your sunscreen?" "That your beer?" and "Who won?"

You can't see a lot of actual horse racing out there. But the sounds are memorable: the anticipation building from the grandstand side as the horses turn for the finish, and dozens of thousands screaming hopes, prayers, wrath and riding instructions. Then, at the moment of highest drama in perhaps all of sport, when the leaders hit the end line, it's like the last note of a classical music piece, cymbals meeting, horns peaking, drums beaten.

Then: nothing.

Imagine somebody cutting off Niagara Falls.

The infield is a dramatic place to be.

The third list is the one I have been on twice: the creditor list, things to do before you run out of money.

Both times I've gone to the Derby, I have been a guest in Corporate City, upstairs in the private table area where people are big enough to know the hired hands by their first names.

Handicapping in the expensive rooms is like trying to hide beer bust breath, coming home late as a high school senior.

It's like you're the only one in the room interested in trying to break even.

My idea of handicapping is total focus, notes on the riders, track trends and bias. Yet in the reserved and box seat areas, the Derby is a couples event -- date day, bring a spouse or somebody you really like.

Few horse players enjoy having their betting habits on display. But at a table in the tablecloth district, I found myself hearing political and fashion talk, while having to sneak peeks at the Daily Racing Form.

Seeing a couple or three guys hanging together at the Derby, guys in shorts with some beer and deep into the past performances … talk about male road-trip envy.

I have dropped some considerable blocks of money on trips to Ireland, the Carolina barrier island string, New York, L.A., Vegas, Nova Scotia, even Wyoming. But little compares to the Derby trips, where I stayed in places with weekend minimums, once going zero for two days at the windows.

Not cashing a ticket on Derby weekend is like not watching "Seinfeld." After a while, it's at least unique to be the only one going so weirdly.

Here's the ticket for being there as a member of any list: Do a little bit of everything.

Churchill Downs
Horsephotos.comFrom suites to box seats to the infield, anyplace at Churchill is a good one on Kentucky Derby day.
Don't bet to be betting. Don't bet what you like. Bet only what you love as much as anything you have ever seen.

Betting a 20-horse race is pure entertainment by definition.

Play dates, addresses, whatever a buck can buy.

The overnight double matching Oaks and Derby winners usually pays much more than anybody would have guessed.

Imagine the amount of cash on hand at post time of race one, Derby day.

Enjoy the people and color and gear and post parades, all the things you wouldn't find, say, some Thursday night at the simulcast joint.

Here is some advice to the serious horse player at Churchill, Derby day: Don't take it too seriously.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com.

ALSO SEE