LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Welcome to the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby. My name is Billy and I will be your guide over the next 10 days or so.
For your information, this will be my 51st year on the Derby beat. It will be the 49th I’ve seen in person, however, because events beyond my control took me away from Churchill Downs for two runnings. But that’s a story for another day.
My first Derby was in 1966, when Kentucky native Don Brumfield won the roses with Kauai King. I was in the jockeys’ room after the race to hear Brumfield, who was not known for his eloquence, utter one of the most memorable, and surely the most alliterative, line in Derby history: “I’m the happiest hillbilly hardboot in the world.”
As a longtime sports writer, the thing I like most about the Derby is that it always delivers a story worth writing. The odds of winning are staggering. Of the 35,000 or so foals born in any given year, only one wins the Kentucky Derby.
When horses are sold at auction, all the money in the world can’t buy a Derby winner. The record book is full of expensive horses who couldn’t run a lick, and cheap ones who became Derby winners.
The Derby is all about diversity and inclusion. It’s the only event I know where billionaires share the same space with grooms who don’t have two nickels to rub together. Most of today’s jockeys are Hispanic, and some are even immigrants. Women have owned, trained and ridden Derby horses.
I’ve been charmed by them all: The hustlers and hucksters, the con artists and the equine artists, the heroes and the villains. And all are bound by that most noble, glorious, honest, and beautiful of creatures: the thoroughbred.
Over all these decades, I have tried, with indifferent success, to capture the Kentucky Derby in words. But at least I am not alone. Writers as diverse as William Faulkner, Hunter S. Thompson (Louisville native) and Red Smith have had a go at it. They all wrote memorable stuff, yet none of them ever quite got it quite right.
The questions are eternal. How did this one event become invested with so much romance, mystery and tradition? Why has it escaped the grasp of so many accomplished horsemen? Why do people who couldn’t find our state capital with a road mob break into sobs when “My Old Kentucky Home” is played as the Derby horses come on the track?
Well, it could have at least something to do with mint juleps.
This concoction of bourbon, sugar, water, and mint dates back to Civil War times. They were served in late afternoon on the verandas of plantations. Julep aficionados claim the ones served at Churchill Downs are poor imitations of the real thing, but I beg to differ. It has been my experience that the ones at the track are quite delicious and get more so as the long day unfolds.
So that is my first bit of sage advice to Derby goers: Unless you are allergic to alcohol, have at least one julep to get you in the proper spirit of things.
Here are nine more tips:
* Regarding ladies’ hats, I have encountered some that are roughly the size of Rhode Island. They are big enough to provide shade for an entire rock band. These sort of hats spawn irritation, not admiration. So if your Derby hat is bigger than a breadbox, please go find another one.
* And then there’s the matter of shoes. Many women insist on wearing heels so high and thin they could be turned into lethal weapons. They may look good for a while, but then the pain and suffering begin to settle in. After a mint julep or two, these women begin to teeter precariously. It is not a pretty sight. So trust me: Bring a pair of comfortable shoes with you.
* Men see the Derby as an opportunity to get in touch with their inner goofiness. So bankers, lawyers and politicians give themselves permission to leave the blue suit in the closet and, instead, adorn apparel in such colors as yellow, pink, lavender, and lime green. For some odd reason, many feel compelled to smoke cigars, which is guaranteed to start a beef with somebody in the next box.
* The restrooms at Churchill Downs are marked “Men” and “Women,” but as the day wears on, those distinctions get blurred, mainly by women who are trapped in lines that stretch to Central Avenue. And, trust me, nobody worries about sharing restrooms with people of different sexual orientations. When you have to go, no holds are barred.
* You will be exposed to all sorts of touts and handicappers trying to convince you that their system of picking winners is the best. They lie. Don’t trust them. Look at it like this: If they are so smart, why are they hustling you at Churchill Downs instead of cruising on a yacht somewhere?
* If you are lucky, you will run across a celebrity that you actually recognize instead of one of the wannabees, has-beens or never-weres that are paid – yes, paid! – to come in every year and freeload. I’m in favor of the legislature passing a law that says any “celebrity” who comes to the Derby at least two consecutive years must put up some money to buy a Kentucky-bred thoroughbred or be banned from the commonwealth for five years.
* Some planning is required. First, figure out how much you can afford to lose at the betting windows and stop if and when you reach that figure. Do not go to the ATM machine. Second, know where the nearest restroom is. Third, know your escape route. When 160,000 people try to leave one place at the same time, it is the mother of all traffic jams.
* Hunch bets are as valid as ones based on past performances. If you like a certain jockey or number, bet them. It’s perfectly alright to bet on the jockey silks you think are the prettiest. I bet on the longshot Proud Clarion in 1967 simply because I was the only writer to interview him before the race. He paid $62.20 for a $2 win bet. How sweet it was, especially for a 23-year-old kid making maybe $150 a week.
* The favorite in this year’s Derby may go off at odds as high as 4-to-1. That’s how competitive and balanced the 20-horse field figures to be. So watch the odds board for shifts in betting because that will tell you how the public is learning. And don’t scoff at 4-to-1 odds. That’s a pretty handsome payoff.
Over the next few days, we will discuss some of the characters I’ve met along the way. We will talk about the anniversaries of this Derby or that one. For example, it’s difficult to believe that this is 25th anniversary of Lil E. Tee, who gave revered jockey Pat Day his only Derby victory.
Thanks for your attention. All exits are open for outgoing traffic.
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter who contributes regular sports columns to WAVE3.com.
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