Reflections on a First Derby Experience
I’m pretty sure I’ve been watching the Kentucky Derby on television my whole life. My mom plopped me in front of it as a toddler to keep me quiet, and had no idea what she started.
The first one I can actually remember was 1994, when I rooted for distant sixth-place finisher Tabasco Cat to win (because I liked cats and knew who Pat Day was). Even though I moved to Kentucky for college, inspired by stretch runs of Silver Charm and Charismatic, I told anyone who asked that I didn’t plan on abandoning my television on Derby Day unless I had a seat in the press box or Millionaire’s Row, which seemed equally unachievable to me at age 18. But finally, this year, I got my chance.
At the press box, I mean. Ray doesn’t pay us that well.
It wasn’t exactly what I’d envisioned; turns out, a soggy Saturday on the first year in a new press box isn’t exactly the ideal situation to get your bearings. I’ve been to Churchill plenty of times before, but only as a spectator and never realized how many gates there are, how many staircases, and that if someone tells you they’re in Section 316, that’s actually much farther away from Section 322 than it sounds.
By Saturday morning, I felt like I had spent most of the week lost in a keyboard or somewhere on I-64 (or 264? Or 65? Or 71? Still not sure), and was relieved to find a few moments as the sun came up to watch horses gallop under the spires.
Having waited for this day for what felt like my whole life, I had a specific idea of what it would feel like. I was expecting a hum. Some sort of electric energy like the kind that arrives on Christmas morning. The greatest, most historic day of horse racing should just feel different.
Instead, I was struck by how normal everything seemed. Horses were getting baths, outriders were chatting, exercise riders were tugging on reins or leaning low over saddles. There was a smell of Mane n Tail and Thrush Buster in the air rather than roses. Derby trainers had their horses hidden behind the screens on their barn aisles. By the time I got there, the press had transferred to the frontside. It was quiet, but not eerie.
The rain came, and horses lined up for the undercard races like it was any other, soggy day while I watched the track feed on the monitors in the press box. Other than a bigger crowd than usual, more hats and cigar smoke, I was having a hard time detecting a Derby vibe.
I was beginning to wonder if the magic of Derby that I’d grown up to revere was buried somewhere in the NBC theme music that I couldn’t hear in the press box, or the sweeping visuals of the coveted trophy under a cloudless sky that was nowhere to be found today. I worried as I climbed the stairs to the third-floor press viewing area that I had braved the crowds, the security, the traffic, and a pungent motel room for an experience that wasn’t as special as I’d built up in a couple of decades of dreaming.
As it turns out, ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ not only has the power to make hardened jockeys shed tears in the post parade, but to hush a crowd of 151,616. And even when the jumbotron scrolled the lyrics in the wrong order, everyone knew the words.
Although I couldn’t see much of the post parade, I could see the starting gates clearly floating at the top of the stretch. When the last gate closed, I heard something that isn’t so perceptible on tv. The magnitude of the crowd’s anticipating roar as the horses and jockeys paused, considering the next two minutes. That’s when the goosebumps came. To get any mass of very different people to cheer en masse for anything in this weird world stops the heart.
The race that followed could not possibly have been any better. I screamed at my pick, a late-flying Revolutionary, far louder than I can ever remember yelling at a screen. I jumped. Some kind of odd arm-flapping may have happened. I didn’t care. I was at my first Derby, and no amount of rain could wash away the reminder that this is exactly why all of us do what we do.