Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Kentucky Times Day 2

After tossing and turning on the gravely sand all night I crawled out of my tent on "the beach" and greeted my first Kentucky morning. We wanted to get to the track as soon as possible, as it was 10 am or so and the races were already in progress. I didn't know it beforehand, but there are actually 13 races on derby day, and the Kentucky Derby is #11.

The campsite guys had said there would be a shuttle that would take us to the race and wherever else we wanted to go. The "shuttle" meeting spot was really just a line of random people with random vehicles who were willing to drive us wherever we wanted to go for tips. The two of us rode to the derby in random older dude Paul's pickup truck. As usual I tried to make small talk with the driver on the way to Churchill Downs. I made the terrible mistake of asking Pickup Paul if he worked at the campsite all year round, or just during derby season. This opened the floodgates to the worst story ever. He was unemployed. He had a family but he didn't get any government assistance. He pointed at his throat and said he had to pawn his necklace for the money to fix the truck we were currently riding in. At this point I noticed he only had nine fingers. He then went into how there was no set price to the ride but we should pay him whatever we thought it was worth, and so on. After dropping us off he gave us a card with his number on it for the return trip. We quickly agreed that we weren't going to be calling him on the way back. I realize I am a terrible person, but that was too much to deal with twice.

The scene in the few blocks around Churchill Downs was a unique one. It was crowded, sure. But the people present seemed to all be from three equal sized groups: the super well dressed, the grungy people with coolers and lawn chairs, and the police and military.

Getting into the gate took some time. We were entering with the people with lawn chairs and even some tent bags. Security moved at a snail's pace. Not only were they checking bags, but they would just ask you if you had a phone or a camera, and then they would ask you to turn it on to make sure it wasn't a bomb or something. Kinda weak.

It was 40 dollars to get in, by the way.

At least there was some entertainment. At first it was just one awkward looking kid with a bible, gibbering about accepting the lord and whatnot. Everyone pretty much just ignored him. The group secretly blossomed into 6ish. They were serious. To loosely quote them, "drinking, gambling, fornicating, and dressing provocatively will end you up in hell. Catholics are all going to hell." One quote that I liked a lot and continued to ask Jim throughout the day was simply "why do you love sin?" He still hasn't given me a good answer. The guy with the megaphone had a great southern accent which made it even better. The signs they were carrying were also a great time. There were such gems as "hell hotline inquire here", "ask me why Michael Jackson deserved hell", "ladies, if its not for sale, why are you advertising?", and the crowd favorite "Women should be 1. Quiet 2. Keepers at home (doing dishes, laundry, ironing etc.) 3. Submissive to husbands 4. Silent in church 5. Care-takers of the church 6. Modestly dressed".

I wish I had more video. I only took 30 seconds. You get the idea anyway.

Once past the gate we took a long tunnel that ran under the track, and we were in!. I recently read Hunter S. Thompson's The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved(here), and he described the scene this way.

To get there we had to pass through many gates, each one a step down in status, then through a tunnel under the track. Emerging from the tunnel was such a culture shock that it took us a while to adjust. "God almighty!" Steadman muttered. "This is a...Jesus!" He plunged ahead with his tiny camera, stepping over bodies, and I followed, trying to take notes.

Total chaos, no way to see the race, not even the track...nobody cares. Big lines at the outdoor betting windows, then stand back to watch winning numbers flash on the big board, like a giant bingo game.


"Hell, this clubhouse scene right below us will be almost as bad as the infield. Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks, getting angrier and angrier as they lose more and more money. By midafternoon they'll be guzzling mint juleps with both hands and vomitting on each other between races. The whole place will be jammed with bodies, shoulder to shoulder. It's hard to move around. The aisles will be slick with vomit; people falling down and grabbing at your legs to keep from being stomped. Drunks pissing on themselves in the betting lines. Dropping handfuls of money and fighting to stoop over and pick it up."

With a picture like that in your head, anything looks good in comparison! It was kinda like being in a county fair with no rides and lots of alcohol. There were tents for different foods, drinks, and souvenirs. The Goodyear Blimp and little planes with fluttering banner ads buzzed overhead. We had arrived decently early in the day, and so had beaten most of the crowds. People's clothes were awesome. Even though we were in the po' folk seats, quite a few of the ladies were dressed fancy and had giant hats on. Another common sight were stylish galoshes, anticipating a giant mud pit if the rains came. There was also the odd horse costume, or horse hat. Many took the opportunity to be funny, and instead of dressing up, they wore the hillbilliest clothes they could find. Tight, self-cut jean shorts, referred to by me as "dem jorts", were also a pretty funny addition.

The lines to the betting windows ranged from short to nonexistent, and we could actually see a couple of the races through the fence. We got there just in time for me to lose on my bum of a bartender's lazy horse. I bet similarly on the next couple races, and just picked horses based on how cool their name sounded.

We got to see the horses burst out of the gate for this race. Another little fact I didn't know was some of the races were on the dirt track and others were on the grass.

By the 4th or 5th race, the lines at the window had ballooned. I was tired of waiting in lines every half an hour, so I simply bet on number 7 for six races all at once. I didn't do half bad with that approach.

By this point we had to watch the races on one of several giant screens. Its a bit hard to see, but the guy in the red and white shirt has shaved his head except for a "137". It's the 137th Kentucky Derby. Bro is classy.

My "bet on 7 everytime" rule was still in effect. Number 7 in the derby was named Pants on Fire. That horse broke my damn heart. I bet across the board again, and he was fluttering around in 2nd and 3rd place before turning into a pumpkin at the last turn. It was the most exciting 2 minute letdown in sports.

I saw a fight or two, and one or two people puke, but all in all it wasn't too bad. There were police and military people everywhere so trouble makers didn't last long. I think drinks were expensive enough to limit people's consumption. I of course wanted to drink the classic mint juleps, but they were ten bucks a piece. Even one of those an hour for the 6 hours we were there would have been economically painful.

The juleps came in cool souvenir glasses. They had the names of all the winning horses on the back since 1875.

If I was to do it all over again I would have brought a lawn chair, and if I had a large enough group to deal with it, a tent of some sort. There was not one public place to sit down, so we pretty much trail of tears wandered around in circles the whole time, and occasionally sat in the grass.

There were two races after the actual derby, but no one cared. The masses decided to leave at the same time, and the bottle neck was the tunnel. The sound of smashed beer cans being kicked echoed all around. Several chants of U-S-A erupted while in the darkness of the tunnel, an aftershock of Bin Laden taking his medicine a few days prior. Several people were wearing Osama related t-shirts.

Once out we decided we would walk back to camp, because it wasn't really that far. My smart phone was dead, and Jim apparently bought his phone at an Amish outlet mall, so we got super lost. The neighborhoods surrounding Churchill Downs are a bit economically depressed, and everyone seemed to be selling things. Laws were either lax or just different in the area, because people were selling beer straight out of their coolers. I saw one group offer a random woman 30 dollars to ride home in her truck, and she surprisingly accepted. We randomly met another group from our same campsite, and together we rode in yet another random guy's truck bed for 20 bucks. It was a fun tour of the city.


  1. My friend Hank is telling me that I've made the Kentucky Derby look like a pit of despair. I had a great time and would go again next year. Maybe I did a bad job of conveying that. Haha.

  2. Your sunny disposition can make any good time look terrible.