The 138th Kentucky Derby – The View from the Backside

A red-stitched baseball cap hung lopsidedly on the head of a man named Jamie. He swigged a Miller High Life and said, ‘I’m going to pace myself to three or four beers an hour.’ He was the favourite to fall first. An in-house sweepstake amongst our friends 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 first unofficial race of the derby. A cool skinny white man called Cliff wearing a basket weave flat cap and a Casio digital watch was already unconscious. Head slumped backwards into a camping chair caught in the dark triangular shade of the gazebo. The LCD digits that dangled out from under the sleeve of his charity shop seersucker Prada jacket said 08:59am.

The hand draped down, a loose fist half curled and dormant on a folded Courier-Journal. The front page headline poked out at an angle under the back of the knuckles, it read ‘She’s No 1’ and related to a story about Rosie Napravnik, the first female jockey to win the Kentucky Oaks the day before.

On my lap lay another publication, the centimetre thick racing program. I thumbed through it and noted there were thirteen races for us 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 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.

The Greatest Two Minutes in Sport

The ‘greatest two minutes in sport’ as the main race is known globally or more locally as the ‘Race for the Roses’ attracts around 160,000 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 totalled were expected to reach a record $187 million.

My only prior knowledge about this race was Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 seminal sports article illustrated by Ralph Steadman, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved which detailed that five million bucks got bet back then. Now seventy bucks lighter myself I was counting my twisted luck that found me here following in one of my writing hero’s footsteps forty-two years later.

On this Saturday the 5th May 2012 at the 138th Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, the odds and sods inside the track panned out pretty much the same as when Hunter S. Thompson first described them only the costumes people wore were different and some southern belles chose to get around on shop mobility scooters. The rich and famous still fill up the iconic two spires main grandstand; the hedonistic headless chickens still slug it out in the in-field until bourbon, mint julep cocktails or the heat take them down; however 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, to where I was now in the Backside.

‘No side like 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. I was the visitor. The virgin derby goer. So it was easy to skirt around the edges and observe. They seemed like a loving bunch, caught together by years of existence together in the knotty fabric of each other’s lives, their hospitality was of national importance.

Most of us had hit the hay by mid-afternoon. A bi-plane woke me up out of an addled dream of riding a horse through a thunderstorm with lightening bolts sparking from its hooves.

‘What’s it doing?’

‘A circle…’

‘An eyebrow…’

‘A smiley face….’

‘A cloud smiley face…’

‘Horses are in our blood’

I got up and slunk off, to go for a mosey round the backside.

In the shade of the stables a horse hung its head over saloon doors cooling itself above an electric fan. Fearfully I gave its nose a stroke, the heat permeated my fingers and I felt the hard bone underneath the white stripe that ran the length of its head.

At the end in a dormitory room half the size of the stable, a Mexican family crammed themselves in to watch 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.

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 so instead he swayed this way then that, then blew out a hard line of smoke that fumigated the crowd.

‘Put that thing out,’ screeched a woman wearing a tennis brim, her teeth could’ve bit the back of his neck, ‘for the love of God you’re killing us.’

At 6.24pm the race started, reality got whipped into shape.

A man, wearing a grey baseball cap complete with earpiece, binoculars and a video camera pointed at the first bend took it upon himself to become the race commentator.

He started saying the same word in a low rhythmic hum long before we saw any action on the track,

‘Bodemeister. It’s Bodemeister. Still Bodemeister…’

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.

Back at base camp Jamie was still celebrating. I’ll Have Another had a starting price of 15-1. ‘Unbelievable,’ he said, ‘I told you gate nineteen was due a win! And that’s the first time I’ve picked the derby winner. Time for another beer!’

I’ll Have Another crosses the finish line to win 2012 Kentucky Derby
Photo Credit: The Kentucky National Affairs Public Office

Read Hunter S. Thompson’s full article The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved

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