Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Jaw-drop Heard 'Round the World: Part II of the Kentucky Derby experience

You got no time for the messenger,
got no regard for the thing
that you don't understand.
You got no fear of The Underdog,
that's why you will not survive.
- Spoon, "The Underdog"

Like so many other handicappers, I reviewed the entrees for the Kentucky Derby for hours upon hours, trying to make sense of the bloodlines, times, Beyers, and horse gestures that would clue me in to who would be the freshest horse come the first Saturday in May in the most prestigious race in America. So many good horses dropped out at the last minute, that a field that once promised to be one of the most talent-filled in twenty years was reduced to simply a field with 50/50 talent. Of the horses I picked for a top 5, only one hit the board.

It seems one in one thousand actually picked the winner, a 50-1 longshot.

When the last race was run before the Kentucky Derby, Einstein's breathtaking head-bobber over the improving Cowboy Cal, a 90-minute break settled over the grandstands in anticipation for the race everyone had come to see.

There was plenty going on to fill the void. It was at this time I found my spot in the aisle on the rail and cemented myself there until the Derby. From my experience last year, I knew people would be swarming all over the people in front about 15 minutes before race time, and I wasn't about to let anyone mar my view of the race I'd been preparing to see for months. I was tired, feeling hung-over from the full week of 6 am wake-ups and relentless Derby fever, but these were the dire moments.

Anxiety began to rise when the first Derby contender appeared on the Jumbotron. I think it was someone like Nowhere to Hide, but it could've well been Mine That Bird, for as much as I cared about those horses at the time. The walk-overs had begun. The entourages had begun to grow in a steady stream on the Clubhouse Turn, winding down the track in a Kentucky Derby parade. They came from the barns on the other side of the track like a river of trout to the tunnel, and on to the paddock.

I began to feel my nerves tense. I could picture the views from TV, the coverage of the horses beginning to be saddled. This was really happening, and I was there as witness. The Kentucky freaking Derby. It doesn't matter how many times you witness it, each time is a raucous, whirlwind jitter-ride you can't quite grasp while you're in it.

I had to stand up on the concrete and lean over the chain-link fence to get a good look at who was among the entourage of millionaires, trainers, grooms, and horses. I saw Larry Jones and Friesan Fire, and felt a leap in the pit of my stomach, realization washing over me it would be the last time I saw this scene of that tall man in the white cowboy hat leading his horse to saddle in the Kentucky Derby. The sport will not be the same without Larry Jones.

The band began to filter into the infield, in front of the winner's circle, and the soldiers who stood guard in front of the rail marched in line. My emotions were peaked. I knew what was coming. The horses were all being saddled, the last bits of advice were being given to the jockeys, and then it came, the chill-inducing call to the post.

The Derby contenders, with jockeys in tow, began their dance out of the tunnel to meet the roar of the grandstands. The band began to play the first notes of "My Old Kentucky Home," and I lost it. I could barely sing five words, though I knew them by heart.

As my horses passed me, I rooted for them all. I didn't feel there was any one I wanted most to win, though I did cheer the loudest for Gabriel Saez atop Friesan Fire. Out of all the contenders, Dunkirk seemed the most on his toes, and I marvelled at how plucky he looked on his way to the starting gates. He knew he was in a race, and all the horses seemed to know today was something speical.

Maybe they got a clue from the howling grandstands.

Some lady dared to try to shove her kids between my husband and I, and then tried to squeeze one of them in front of my view of the starting gates. I told her sorry, she could find some other place. Even in hallowed moments, there's always somebody who tries to rain on your parade. There is nothing sacred.

The starting gates were a good distance away from me, so I couldn't see the start of the race very well. Some guy was holding his ridiculous camera phone directly in my sights, too. How he expected to get any sort of decent picture so far away on a cell phone, I have no concept, but anyway, I did manage to get a shot of Dunkirk stumbling three strides out of the gate. That pretty much sealed the $3.7 million-dollar gray's fate.

The field flew past us, and I snapped pictures of them with the rapidity of machine gun fire. I could tell that the early leaders were exactly as I'd expected: Join in the Dance had taken the early lead, and Regal Ransom was hot on his heels. I saw Pioneerof the Nile had found good position in about third or fourth place, and thought Pioneer was a shoe-in for victory.

The race on the backstretch was a bit of a blur. All I can remember is being overwhelmed with the thought, "This is the Derby, it's happening right now. Don't blink, it's half over!" And when the horses moved into the final turn, my husband said, "Who is that moving up so fast? They're gonna be cooked." He was talking about Mine That Bird. I barely kept that comment on file in the back of my brain as the field rounded the turn for home.

I looked at the Jumbotron and didn't see any of my horses but Pioneerof the Nile. And so, I began to scream, "C'mon, PIONEER!" My body was half-slung over the fence; I could see the horses charging for home. Pioneerof the Nile was on the outside, closest to us, but several other horses looked to be challenging.

That's when I started taking pictures, and that's when I noticed the horse on the inside rail charging out of nowhere like a bat out of hell. Still, I kept my lens focused on Pioneerof the Nile, confident I had picked the Derby winner for my sixth year in a row. SNAPSNAPSNAP, SNAPSNAPSNAP

The rest of the race pretty much went like this:
"Who is that on the inside! He's coming fast!"
"He's not gonna do it!" SNAPSNAPSNAP
"Oh my God!"
"Who the hell is that?!" SNAPSNAPSNAPSNAP
"I don't know who it is!"
"I can't believe this!"
"OH MY GOD!!!"
"Pioneerof the Nile was second by a nose!"
"It's Mine That Bird!"
"You've got to be $*^@*^~ kidding me!"
"Mine That Bird!"
"I don't &%^$#*@ believe this!"
"Oh my God... unbelievable."
"I don't &%^$#*~ believe this!"
"$#@%! $#@%! $#@%!"

Yes, it was utter devastation at first. There was much cussing, much forsaking of the little children's ears surrounding us hardcore handicappers. We'd just been given one of the biggest rear-end screws in history. A 50-1 longshot just broke every rule ever written about handicapping, any iota of credibility a handicapper could claim. Mine That Bird single-handedly threw all the statistics, the Beyer Speed Figures, the racing records straight out the window. He paid $103 for a $2 bet. No one around me had come close to picking him.

And then, something happened. We saw Calvin Borel on Mine That Bird, saw a pure emotion, a pure joy in him rarely seen on the track, and the tide of resentment, bitterness, and downright loathesome notions turned like a tidal wave. Admittedly, I didn't even realize Borel had been on Bird's back; that's how little I paid attention to this son of Birdstone. Something changed in those moments that I credit to the spirit of Louisville and the Kentucky Derby. The Derby lives in its own world of rules and emotions, and just like that, everyone in the grandstand was applauding Mine That Bird and Calvin Borel. Not just applauding, they were standing up and hollering for him, waving their programs and tossing their lost bets in a Derby confetti. It was a living Hollywood moment, a scene I never would've expected to experience in real life.

So we lost some money, who cares? That guy just won the Kentucky Derby, on a horse no one expected to win. Let's let him have his moment. Let's help his celebrate. Let's continue this strange party like it was meant to be.

Borel came riding past us on Mine That Bird instead of heading directly onto the turf to accept the garland of roses and get his picture taken. I think that was one of the key elements that roused the spectators to a roar of cheers and applause. Calvin was bouncing up and down on the saddle, screaming and hooting, gibbering on like an acrobatic parrot on his perch. He brought tears to my eyes, and I cheered for him as if I'd won money, instead of losing $40 like I had on him. It's moments like this the Derby is really about.

Despite the house winning everybody's money, a feeling of goodwill and happiness continued to linger in the crowd. People began to leave during the coronation, and losing tickets scattered over the ground like white wedding petals. It was all over. The horses were being unsaddled and led back to their barns. Nobody had gotten hurt (except for a few punctured egos), and we were allowed to breathe the collected sigh of relief and start dreaming about next year.

The races following the Derby exist on a plane of other-worldliness. You can sneak up to Millionaire's Row undected, sit in the abandoned seats of the owners of Square Eddie, Win Willy, and Justwhistledixie, and patronize the empty bathrooms where ladies walk around in multi-hundred-dollar hats that make you feel like a ragamuffin. You can watch the last two races on the card from the upper levels and have an eagle-eye view of the drunks below who are counting their losses in the emptying seats. Fans are having one last round of mint juleps, collecting discarded Derby glasses, and women are finally caving in to wearing jackets over their skimpy dresses. It's a beautiful carange in the Derby aftermath.

I went to the paddock one last time and saw Calvin Borel come down the chain-link jockey path to a round of applause and cheers. He mounted his horse and grinned like a kid who'd just snitched one of his momma's cookies. Then he gave the patented Cool Cal peace sign and welcomed the applause like the humbled gentleman he is. He's just a little Cajun man having the time of his life, and everyone smiled as he passed by, so happy for him.

We found Steve in the emptying infield. His eyes were bloodshot from a few too many mint juleps, and from the contraband liquor he'd managed to smuggle inside his cooler. He, too, had lost a ton of cash on Mine That Bird, but later remembered he'd made a wheel bet and made $200 on the race. Such is the experience of a good handicapper. I'll remember to take his lead next time.

Just a week earlier, I'd seen the movie Woodstock and marvelled at the aftermath of the grounds after the festival was coming to a close. The Churchill Downs infield looks like its twin after the Derby. The only difference is there may be less discarded condoms lying about the abandoned tents, beer cans, and lost articles of clothing.

As Hunter S. Thompson once said, "the Kentucky Derby is decadent and depraved." It offers the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. This year was both of that in one swift move by Calvin Bo-Rail, but ultimately, everyone left the Downs in good spirits. Sometimes, it's not about if your horse wins, it's about being carried away by the experience; the symbol of Louisville, the fleur-de-lis, symbolizes the "heraldry in everyday life." Even a pauper can be a king or live the life on high. It's about a common joy, and feeling camaraderie among the fans surrounding you.

The Derby is an experience like none other. And if you've yet to know its embrace, you're missing out. Be sure not to miss it next year. It's intoxicating and addictive, and once you've been swept away in its whirlwind, good luck dismissing its call next year, and the year after.

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