Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Kentucky Derby, through the haze: Part I

Last year on Derby morning, I woke up much more nervous. I had never been to the Derby before, and anxiety hit me like a tidal wave. I'd barely gotten any sleep, I kept thinking about the year in racing leading up to that point, and I was nervous I wouldn't be able to see the race. I learned a lot from last year.

I took sleeping aids every day of the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby. I knew I would be able to see the race because it would be misfortune to anyone who dared get in the way of my giganto lens. The Oaks experience the day before had proven you can stand at the rail all day long, no matter where your seat was assigned (two drunks from the infield would later drive home my point as they got by security and found us on the rail, where they asked how to get back to the infield tunnel). More than anything, I was exhausted by the week of getting up at 6:00am, and I was still feeling the ghost of the 300mm lens from Oaks day in my shoulder and arm muscles. In short, a week of Derby festival culminates with simply trying to survive through it all; but I wouldn't have missed a moment of it.

I'd brought a breezy 20's-style dress and high heels to wear for the Derby, but as I thought about the prospect of hulking around that 300mm lens the whole day again, and the fact the news said the high was 60* with a chance of rain, I opted to buy a Kentucky Derby 135 hoodie; the hoodie cost more than my dress, but it was worth it to be snug and warm the entire day while other ladies in their sun dresses and big hats ended up stealing their men's jackets to find warmth. I still got to wear my straw fedora, so I was festive enough.

When I got to Churchill Downs, my morning agenda consisted of 1. Retrieving the Hulk, as I have dubbed the 300mm, from Horse Photos (I had been told, after giving them my Oaks pictures, to "take two Tylenol and come back in the morning") and 2. Find Steve 3. Make bets

I ate at Wagner's one last time (and a little gladly it would be the last time that week-- I'd become a little sick of eating grease and fat each morning, but the tradition must live on!) and was in the restaurant when a news reporter said to a patron off-handedly, "I hope I'll have better luck later on. My horse scratched this morning."

Instantly, I was on alert. When the camera was shut off, I got the news from him that MY pick, I Want Revenge, the favorite for the Derby, had been scratched with "a foot abscess" (it later turned out to be a swelled ankle). I couldn't believe it. Just a moment before, I'd been grinning ear-to-ear at an ad in the Daily Racing Form with the profiles of a snarling I Want Revenge and Pioneerof the Nile: "Duel at the Downs." I couldn't WAIT to see the re-match.

Duel scratched. I was crushed, utterly crushed. It wasn't as bad as Zenyatta's scratch, because there were more horses in the Derby I liked, but still... my previous favorite, Quality Road, had been scratched Monday. It seemed there was no end to the last-minute disappointments. I only hoped there would be no injuries in the races that day. At least, I consoled myself, they'd been looking out in the best interest of the horse.

I made my new picks Friesan Fire, Pioneerof the Nile, and Chocolate Candy; with General Quarters, Mr. Hot Stuff, and Dunkirk as the orbiting exactas. Stupidly, I left out Musket Man, who I'd been rooting for all year. I figured he wasn't up to the caliber of horses in the Derby. Idiot me. Always root for what's in your gut, not in your head.

I entered Churchill Downs through the infield entrance. I really don't know how to explain the infield experience to a full effect. It's a little like Woodstock, but instead of legenary music, they barely get to see historic horse races. There's the same discarded trash, sandals, sleeping bags, and tents to be found in the aftermath, and the same intoxication and clouds of smoke, only it's from cheap beer, over-priced mint juleps, and cigars. Much to my chagrin, cigars are EVERYWHERE.

Herein I found Steve, the cool track regular I'd made friends with during the workouts. He'd shown me the silks of past stakes winners in one of the cafes inside the grandstands, explained some quirks of Churchill Downs (like the turf rail being pushed out to keep the rail grass nice for stakes days), and was a good handicapper. Every year, he and his Derby buddies set up camp in a corner of the infield next to the fence, where they are literally inches away from the horses during the turf races. You can find him by the little American flag his camp sticks in the fence.

It turns out, Steve placed what he called a "wheel" bet on the Derby field, which ended up paying him off pretty well. I'm not sure which sort of wheel bet he placed, but it sounds he at least broke even, which is more than I can say about my bets.

When I went to go pick up my lens, I found out another photographer had already secured it, so I was left with my old faithful Li'l Bastard. That's okay, that meant I wouldn't have such an arm ache for Derby day.

I had an aisle seat in section 120; not bad. I didn't end up using it much, though. Sadly enough, the day was pretty much an endurance test of standing at the rail and trying to break out of my haze. Churchill Downs only sells Lillies on Oaks day, and I wasn't about to touch another mint julep, so I had to sustain myself on bottled water, the Wagner's in my stomach, and some nachos for lunch.

Of interest around me in the grandstands was this little girl, she had to be about 8 years old, who kept picking winners seemingly out of no real knowledge at all. From what I was gathering, she was picking her horses based on the color of their saddle towels. It truly was a sight to see. She picked 4 winners in a row, but her streak was snapped when my boy Einstein came out to win his second Woodford Reserve in a row, the first horse to ever accomplish the feat. I was screaming for him at the top of my lungs. Cowboy Cal really put in a good fight to the end, but it was the champ who won out in the end. I was so happy for him. There's nothing to wake you up quite like a neck-and-neck battle to the wire!

Part 2: The Jaw-drop Reard 'Round the World coming tomorrow...

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