The Derby is everything you imagine. And more.
I'm here to report that segregation is alive and well in old Kentucky, but ironically it's that most English of things, a class segregation. The Kentucky Derby is a frozen moment of history, where the unwashed Nascar masses party in the pit, looked down upon by the gentry from the spectator seats. The horses and the track - the reason at least half of us are there - only adds to the realization that we're re-enacting a age-old tradition that began not in 1875 in Louisville, but 200 BC, in a Coliseum in Rome, where ale-drinking, toga clad Senators looked down as animals and slaves did battle in the pit.
It was one of the greatest sporting moments of my life.
As we neared Churchill Downs, the local residents were on the sidewalks, holding handmade signs in front of their vehicle-strewn lawns - "Parking: $20". The financial ecosystem of this annual event already trickling down, a mass redistribution of wealth in which I -by the end of the day - would also play my part.
And then the hats. My God, it's full of hats.
I'd been told to expect hats, but nothing can really prepare you for the sea of hats. Was this once de rigeur? Did we really cover our heads daily, whether in reverence or against the elements? I imagine 5000 empty hat boxes, laying somewhere, ready to be flown home the following day.
Our team made it's way to our seats in the grandstand, overlooking Turn One. Once again, I'll mention our hosts, Axe Bodywash, who offered up not only the tickets, but an unending stream of Juleps and Cigars.
There's no trying to pretend I studied the form. As far as I can see, you watch the odds and choose your position - to bet with or against the crowd. As with life, conformists can expect a steady stream of mediocrity, while those who dare to live on the edge can experience singular spectacular highs amongst long runs of lows.
For those who have never bet on-track before, (and - despite my claims to inexperience - it seemed I was one of the few amongst us who actually had), it's made cunningly easy. Waiting in line for a window is nothing more than depositing your weekly paycheck, except here, more often than not, it's all deposits, and no withdrawals. I'd chosen a series of Win, Place and Pick 3s for the day, that strode a middle line of risk, and on a day of favorites and - in one notable case - rank outsiders, it was to prove completely unsuccessful.
But never mind - you can beat a race, but ultimately the Races always beat you. So better to be done with it. We decided it was time to leave the ivory tower and travel to the wrong side of the tracks, to the Infield. This is a different Derby, an orgy of grilling and chilling. As we picked our way through the mud, the cavorting and passed out bodies, I realized that most of them were unaware of the races underway, just the other side of the fence. Indeed, without the occasional roar of the distant crowd as a winner passed the finish line, you might believe you were at a country fair.
A country fair with mud wrestling, that is.
As Derby time approached, we struggled back through the crowds to be ready for the big one. They call it "the most exciting two minutes in sport", and this is true. Not just for the brutal, beautiful clash of jockey and mount, which in itself is a terrifying burst of animal energy, built up within each horse as it struggles in the gate and then unleashes around the bend. No, it's also the animal within the crowd - the deafening roar of thousands of prim ladies and fine gentlemen who release their base side, screaming encouragement to their pick, a wall of deafening sound that vibrates through the stand and into your bones. It's electrifying and terrifying.
More so this year, as - in the second biggest upset in Derby History - the 50-to-1 longshot Mine That Bird - who'd held back until after the last turn, POWERED through on the inside in the final straight, easily beating the field by several lengths. It was incredible to watch, and the crowd, as they say, went wild.
We made our way back to the bus, my first - maybe only - Derby experience over. And I thought that was the end.
But there was one more twist in this story to be had, another longshot to ride across the line, one that seemed to have played out from the moment I touched down.
Previously on YBNBY