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Off to the races! Two of the most exciting minutes in sports

Orb at the finish line

Text and photos by John Smith


Almost everyone has a bucket list.* It is important to remember when a bucket list includes a destination that it is not the destination that counts, it is the journey.

The Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. has been on my bucket list since I played a pinball machine that featured the great horses of the Kentucky Derby at Schmeider’s Ice Cream Parlor.

When my daughter moved to nearby Bardstown, Ky. (more on Bardstown later), opportunity came knocking.

Horse racing seems like such a simple affair at first glance, but the $130 million that is wagered on the Kentucky Derby race alone evidences a much more complex and intricate affair.

In the beautiful rolling hill country of Kentucky, even the schools close the day before Derby Day. The Kentucky Derby, known as America’s Race, is the ultimate horse race, reaching almost religious status in Kentucky.

Traditions abound, from flowery hats that range from magnificent to ridiculous, from expensive cigars to clothing that would rival anything seen in Fashion Week in both style and expense.

There is also much to learn about the history of the Derby. On 64 of the 139 dates this race has been run, it has rained. The 20 horses are selected by a competitive point system based on race performances throughout the racing season.

The silks (jerseys) of the jockeys are a throwback to European horse racing, with color and pattern used to identify the jockey and to eliminate confusion as to which horse is winning.

Celebrities such as athletes Julius Erving, Scotty Pippen and Ken Griffey; actors and actresses, e.g. Armie Hammer (the Lone Ranger) and Angela Bassett; and an array of singers, including Miranda Lambert, Martina McBride (who sang the national anthem) and Kid Rock were among the attendees at this year’s Derby.

Ticket prices range from $65 for an infield ticket to corporate suites at about $200,000, and it usually takes from five years to never to claim one of the precious Derby tickets.

The 151,000 race fans are near sentimental tears as they stand solemnly listening to Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home.” This is the final ritual to the final race of the day at Churchill Downs, where the crowd has milled about for the hour and 20 minutes since the last race.

This time was spent in varying degrees of analysis of the 19 horses (one scratched) running in the Kentucky Derby. The analysis included everything from the consumption of mint juleps and Moet champagne (with a gold drinking cap) to discussions about the luck of a name or color to an in-depth study of weight, weather, breeding and track conditions.

On this day it has rained the entire day, so the track conditions are described as “sloppy.” This tag could also be attached to some members of the drinking crowd.

The Kentucky Derby is described as the “two most exciting minutes in sports.” It begins with the call of announcer, “And they’re off!” as the entire six levels of the grandstand rise to their feet.

Nearly every spectator has a stake in the race, all hoping that their horse will bring them some measure of good fortune and riches.

My two dollar bet on the exacta (picking the first- and second-place horses in order) will return over $1,000. My horses are Overanalyze, a sleeper at 25-1 odds, and My Lucky Day, another long shot.

There is something magical about the sound of the thundering hooves and the flash of colors. The race seems to suspend time, yet as the roar of the crowd rises to a crescendo at the finish, it is suddenly over.

Standing in disbelief, a worthless wager ticket in hand, (along with most of the rest of the crowd), I watch as the mud-covered horses and jockeys walk off to their stables.

The winning horse, Orb, (a stupid name for a horse) is honored with a huge garland of roses. The owners of the horse realize the dream and good fortune of having won the most prestigious horse race in the world.

So the day ends with my drive back to the home-town of Stephen Foster - Bardstown, Ky. I must now face my wife, my daughter, my son-in-law, and my two grandsons, who, like the rest of Kentucky and much of the rest of America, have watched the race in the dry comfort of their homes.

I must tell them how I overanalyzed the horses, the track, the weather and everything else and that the wealth that we all surely anticipated will not be forthcoming on this day.

Nonetheless, I can cross the Kentucky Derby off my bucket list and reflect on the journey.

I am in Bardstown, named as the most beautiful small town in America by Rand McNally, (although I dispute this as I think Park Rapids is the most beautiful small town -at least in the summer), and the Bourbon Capital of the World.

My daughter has prepared a delicious meal and I have had a rich experience. I may just have to put a second Kentucky Derby back on my bucket list!

*Bucket List: The things a person wants to do before they “kick the bucket” (die). It is not necessary that they be practical or even attainable. Once one thing is accomplished I recommend that something new be added to the bucket list - in case you last longer than expected.