Monday, May 7, 2012

The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports

For those of you have never been to the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, I assure you, it's something that you MUST do. I went to the 138th race this weekend, on a total whim, and it was such a great experience. It was so wonderful; all of the rich people with sun dresses and pin-striped suits, regal horses and their trainers walking around, the sounds of their hooves pounding the dirt of the track during the races leading up to the Derby.

Well that's what I expected I would see. I was completely wrong. 

We(2 cars, 12 people) got to Louisville and started driving down the main strip outside the track. People stood on the curb with signs saying "Parking $_" with the price raising the closer to the track you got. People were literally driving over the curb onto the front yards of these houses for $10 parking. That was our first bit of the culture of that day. 

It was scorching, had to have been around 90 degrees, and people were walking around with beers in hand, guys with their shirts off and girl fanning themselves with their hats. We found a little parking lot and set up our station. We began with a few drinking games and, sharing beers bought from Sissy's Liquor down the road, and just had fun (I only had a few as I planned to drive home later). After a while, at around 3, we decided it was about time to go to the track. 

A guy snuck a few of us who didn't have tickets in for $25 bucks( I tipped him 10) and we were on our way. To get to the infield, you have to go under the track, so we just fell in line behind everyone else, and began our descent. The further you got through the tunnel, the louder the crowd got. I was legitimately getting anxious to surface. Once we did, I saw a scene that I did not expect, one very different from the picture at the top. It was a little more like this: 

More like Woodstock, and a whole lot cooler than the first picture. People of all sorts were walking around, in horse costumes and brightly colored shirts, some dressed as jockeys and who knows what else. There were guys with their shirts off and incredibly cute girls playing the Southern Belle thing for a day. People carried Mint Juleps around and loudly boasted to everyone who they were betting on. I looked over at the betting area and there was a mass of seemingly immobile people lined up on top of each other. 

A group of about 6 of us got in line and it didn't seem to really move once we were in there. After about 45 minutes, I had my ticket saying I had put $20 on horse #16, El Padrino (The Godfather) to win. (Spoiler alert, I did not win).

After that, it was just time to relax, soak up the sun, and people watch. I mean really, this is the best part of the whole experience. You get to see every kind of person there, but they are all there for the same reason, and that's why it works. It was almost entirely friendly, despite the massive differences in people, and it was so cool to see. 

After a few hours, the race was about to begin. The signature trumpet thing kicked off and the crowd roared. The horses crossed on the big screen one by one and got behind their gates. After a few moments of deliberate hesitation, they were released to a booming, collective cheer. We watched on the screen, because you simply couldn't see the track unless you were against the fence, and people fought for this piece of real estate. Eventually, they came in our direction, and for about 1.5 seconds, I could see incredibly fast flashes of contrasting brown and bright colors.

But that didn't bother me, it was the feeling in that infield that made it all worth it. In the beginning, it started with a real cheer, shouts here and there crying out for their horse, and then the further along it went, the quieter it got, as the real contenders got quiet out of hope and the ones who fell behind had nothing to cheer for. As the horses came around the final turn, and jockeys made their last bids for the crown, the noise level slowly raised as horse #19, I'll Have Another, started catching up with the leader. The horse crossed the finish line about a head in front, and everyone erupted. 

It was so wonderful. After that, everyone who won went to the ticket booth(my buddy's girlfriend won $140) and the rest went out. Like a slowly moving, gelatinous mass, we moved out of the gate slower than most people can tolerate. It took about 30 minutes of shoulder to shoulder crawling to get across the street. Then as you went towards your car, locals set up shop with coolers of water, pop, and beer for the patrons to indulge in. After a while, I submitted and bought a water(the best bottle of my life). We got to the car around 730 and waited for our other friends to get back before leaving. 

I could do a huge summary of the day, but I don't think it's necessary. The story was unique to me, but I feel that it is the same feeling for everyone. I had so much fun on that day after randomly deciding to participate, and I will never regret it. It was a wonderful experience, and I highly suggest everyone do it at least once.

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