The 138th Kentucky Derby – The View from the Backside.
A red-stitched baseball cap wearing man named Jamie swigged a Miller High Life and said, ‘I’m going to pace myself to three or four beers an hour.’ He was the favorite to fall first. An internal sweepstake had him pegged to go by 12.34pm. His wife Sophie, who wasn’t wearing a hat, knew better. She drawled confidently under her breath with more than a hint of pride that, ‘thatt mahn cahn ruhn and ruhn’. She should’ve saved her breath. All bets were off for this unofficial first race of the derby. A cool skinny white man wearing a basket weave flat cap and a Casio digital watch was already unconscious. Cliff was out like a light. His head slumped back awkwardly into a camping chair caught in the shade of the gazebo. LCD digits dangling out from under the sleeve of his charity shop seersucker Prada jacket said 08:59am.
Thumbing through the centimeter thick program for the day there were thirteen races to lose our hard earned money on. Betting systems varied; Lana, not wearing a hat, chose every horse with a turquoise saddle-cloth, I, wearing a joke plastic jockey hat with taped on black goggles, very sensibly went off previous form. Others in the group of friends even more sensibly closed their eyes and jabbed at the page with a pen. Jamie piped up that nobody had ever won out of gate nineteen. Nobody paid him much mind. He shrugged, drained another bottle of High Life and trotted off in hairdryer heat to place his bets. He was not alone. The ‘greatest two minutes in sport’ as the main race is known globally or more locally as the ‘Race for the Roses’ attracts c160,000 spectators to Churchill Downs and 15m television viewers. It is the oldest continuous sporting event in American history and carries with it a $2,000,000 prize tag for the winner. Punters’ bets totaled from all sources were expected to reach a record $187 million.
The odds and sods inside the track pan out like this: the rich and famous fill up the iconic two spires main grandstand; the hedonistic beasts slug it out in the in-field until bourbon, mint julep cocktails or the heat take them down; if you own a horse, or belong to the itinerant Latin American community of stable hands or are lucky enough to know someone that works at the track you can get, where I was now residing seventy bucks lighter, into the backside.
‘No side like the backside,’ said Graham, wearing a straw top hat and aviator shades, ‘It’s the best place to be. You don’t have to get dressed up, you can bring in enough supplies to eat like a horse and drink like a fish all day long.’
The friends I was with were spectacular to this commitment. They were a loving bunch who’d stuck to each other over the years by a bond much stronger than all the drinks at all the derby days ever run.
Most of us had hit the hay by mid-afternoon. A bi-plane moaning a message across the sky woke me up.
‘What’s it doing?’
‘A smiley face….’
‘A cloud smiley face…’
In the shade of the stables horses hung their heads over saloon doors cooling themselves on electric fans. At the end in a dormitory room half the size a Mexican family watched the races live on a small television fixed up onto the wall.
‘We love the horses,’ said the black baseball cap wearing Padre, who didn’t want to be identified, ‘There is a great tradition of cowboys in our lives. We invented the cowboy through the vaqueros and Spain. Horses are in our blood.’
Outside in early evening sun a loose coherence suddenly came across the crowd as the state anthem My Old Kentucky Home injected anticipation and offered some semblance of order into the atmosphere. In the small spectator stand, a man wearing a white cap with Breeders Cup embroidered on the back sucked heavily on cigarette. Worked to the bone, his weathered body swayed precariously as he climbed to his feet on his seat. He was too zonked to sing along to Stephen Forster’s old slave lament song instead he swayed and blew out a hard line of smoke that fumigated the crowd.
‘Put that thing out,’ screeched a woman wearing a tennis brim right into the back of his head, ‘for the love of God you’re killing us.’
Another man, wearing a grey baseball cap complete with earpiece, binoculars and a video camera pointing at the first bend took it upon himself to become the race commentator.
He started saying, ‘Bodemeister. It’s Bodemeister. Still Bodemeister…’ long before we saw any action on the track. Then suddenly the thundering hooves of nineteen thoroughbreds appeared with boy-men jockeys jammed on top.
‘Bodemeister, Bodemeister, Bodemeister,’ continued the opportunistic commentator.
‘Bodemeister, Bodemeister, Bodemeister, BODE- I’LL HAVE ANOTHER has won. I’ll Have Another RIDDEN BY MEXICAN JOCKEY MARIO GUTIERREZ HAS WON!’ he exploded.
‘Unbelievable,’ said Jamie, ‘That’s the first time I’ve picked the derby winner. I want another beer.’