“Have a good Derby.”
That’s what the welcoming residents of Louisville, Ky. tell visitors all week as the anticipation builds for Saturday’s 140th running of the Kentucky Derby.
They don’t say “Good luck,” or “Hope your horse comes in.” It’s, "Have a good Derby," because they want you to embrace and experience every aspect of their city’s signature event, regardless of how many winning tickets you do or don’t cash at the track.
The Derby is truly America’s most enduring sports event. It dates all the way back to when Aristides galloped home as the first winner in 1875, more than a quarter-century before the first World Series was played and nine decades before the NFL got around to creating the Super Bowl.
But what’s a little amazing about the Run for the Roses is that it’s thriving like a wire-to-wire winner thundering down the homestretch even as its sport continues to decline in popularity.
Hmmm. Why is that? Might it have something to do with the party atmosphere that encompasses the Derby?
You bet. The Derby is high up on the bucket list of virtually every red-blooded party goer in America, and it has a honey-like attraction for everyone from the worker bees to the queen of the hive.
It’s where the revelers in the infield can have every bit as much fun as the suits on Millionaires Row who arrive in block-long limos. And it’s where the subtitle of “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” is a bit misleading, because the buzz builds all day long.
With attendance that now regularly tops 160,000, the Derby is one of the most inclusive marquee events in sports. You don’t have to be a CEO or a season-ticket holder to be in the house.
And, let’s be honest. One thing most of the crowd has in common is not really knowing all that much about horse racing, which is perfectly OK.
This is where anyone can be a winner. A first-time visitor might pick a victorious long shot just because it’s wearing silks that are his or her favorite colors. Everyone who drops in to admire Churchill Downs' famed Twin Spires has a chance to end up looking smarter than the guy who analyzes The Racing Form every day.
Gambling is a huge part of the Derby, as oddsmakers around the world know. According to the Washington Post, the total wagers on the race make it the world's No. 1 sports event with gamblers, eclipsing even the Super Bowl. The most ever bet on the race was $187 million, according to the Post, in 2012.
Horse racing’s obsession with bloodlines has a natural appeal to the aristocrats in the crowd. But for the common folk, there’s nothing better than seeing a horse like Wildcat Red, purchased for a mere $30,000, take a place alongside the most elite four-legged animals on the face of the planet.
Louisville is a great setting for this annual slice of Americana, nestled onto a part of the map right between the South and the Midwest.
The city has a rich sports tradition that includes Muhammad Ali’s days as the Louisville Lip. The hoops history goes back way before Rick Pitino came to town, to when Darrell Griffith was the “Dr. Dunkenstein” who led the University of Louisville to its first national championship in 1980. Six Final Fours were held in Louisville before the NCAA went with a domes-only policy. And is there any sweeter sound in sports than when a baseball gets crushed by a Louisville Slugger?
But those names can't even begin to compete with all the history the Derby has created. Secretariat and Seattle Slew took over the sports pages during their runs to the Triple Crown in the '70s, just as Omaha and War Admiral did in the '30s and Count Fleet and Whirlaway in the '40s.
Horse racing's Triple Crown is one of sport's most elusive accomplishments, a holy grail for thoroughbreds that's unfulfilled since Affirmed did it last in 1978. But every year the quest is renewed as the Derby winner claims the first jewel, and the public wonders whether this is the horse who can sustain its winning ways through the Preakness and Belmont.
The Derby buildup includes a steamboat race, a hot air balloon race and even a “Great Bed Race,” proving that if an object can get from Point A to Point B, Kentuckians will gladly strive to make it go as fast as possible.
The Derby also has an allure for women that, among sports events, perhaps is matched only by the Olympics.
According to an Associated Press story about the Derby’s television ratings, the Nielsen company says that slightly more than half of last year’s 16.2 million TV viewers were women. Only the Olympics brings in female viewers to that extent, according to Nielsen.
That demographic has broadened the Derby’s appeal and made it an event that extends well beyond the two-plus minutes that it takes the field to complete the 1.25-mile circuit of Churchill Downs.
“It’s not just a two-minute race,” Rob Hyland, coordinating producer for the NBC Sports Group, told the Associated Press. “Of course, the two-minute race is extremely important, but our job is to capture the venue and the day — it’s a huge celebration — as creatively and poignantly as possible.”
That’s why Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir—the two NBC commentators who drew so much praise while calling figure skating action at the Sochi Winter Olympics—have been brought aboard to track the red carpet side of the Derby on Saturday.
Just about everyone who attends will of course sip at least one mint julep, because to skip the Derby’s trademark drink would be like passing up champagne on New Year’s Eve.
The Derby’s website says about 120,000 of the bourbon drinks get served up at Churchill Downs during Derby weekend, and the cool thing is that most of them are served in souvenir glasses made especially for each year’s race.
Those who attend the race regularly have collections of Derby glasses that date back years, even generations, and vintage ones can be found at garage sales all over Louisville.
And woe to the woman who shows up without a proper hat.
Kentucky women have taken this fashion statement to outrageous extremes, and it’s not at all astounding to see a perfectly coiffed lady make her way to a private box with an exact replica of the Twin Spires atop her head.
The architecture of Derby hats can be weeks in the making, and the final result can be so feathered that it makes a bird of paradise look downright dull.
A woman’s Derby hat is the key element of her place among the see-and-be-seen crowd, and if it blocks your view of the race, well, that’s just too bad.
And ladies, you simply can’t show up without one, no matter how comical or ad lib it is. A woman without a hat at the Derby is sadder than betting a nag who finishes 20 lengths out of the money.
One other thing the uninitiated might want to do is learn the words to “My Old Kentucky Home.”
Back in the day, the song that was sung in the lead-up to the running of the Derby unfortunately included mention of “darkies.” But that was rectified by an act of the Kentucky Legislature in 1986, and you can now feel free to sing or hum along without offending anyone.
And don’t be surprised if you see the eyes of a few natives of the Bluegrass State well up with tears.
Yes, it’s that kind of a crowd, and it’s a joy to be part of it.
Tom Weir covered a dozen Kentucky Derbies as a columnist for USA Today, and he only picked the winner twice.