At a rest stop near the Indiana-Kentucky border, I stop at a Circle K for supplies. I need food, caffeine, uppers for the marathon upon which I have pitched my horse.
In my Derby getup I am far from inconspicuous.
I pick up a turkey sandwich, some chocolate, iced tea, water and a string cheese. The gray-haired, middle-aged fellow in front of me inquires if I’m on my way to Churchill Downs — as if there is anywhere else within 500 miles where someone in such a costume would be so festooned. I answer in the affirmative, and he tells me that at a Kentucky Derby a few years back, he was arrested and tossed in jail for tackling a cop who was “beating” on a pal of his.
I didn’t ask, but I was told — apparently I am the confessor for those who wish to unburden their sins.
In other words, I am a journalist.
Yesterday, at Evolve: The Men’s Resale Store in downtown Louisville, I purchased my way into the spirit of the weekend: blue-striped seersucker pants; loud, patterned blue shirt favored by the shop’s minder; funky blue jacket and untied bow tie. After spending a portion of my morning in front of the bathroom mirror, using a YouTube primer for guidance, I gave up on fashioning my own bow from the length of fabric I was sold at Evolve and opt to go without.
This is as close to Southern gentlemanly as this Yankee will get today — a New Jerseyan amid the Kentucky bourgeoisie here to drop hundreds or even thousands of dollars on stallions whose sole purpose is to run around a dirt track for two minutes.
I can’t even knot my bow tie.
The drop zone around the University of Louisville Papa Johns Cardinal Stadium is a zoo. Exit ramps off of I-65 are backed up for a mile or more, but Waze guides me to a less-jammed third exit ramp, wherein I am dumped into suburban neighborhoods of local entrepreneurs beggaring for out-of-towners to plunk down their cash to leave their automobiles behind at a premium so they can make their way to the track to drop even more bling-bling on an equine race that may or may not reinforce their bank ledgers.
I’m able to weasel my rented Mazda into a stadium entrance, where a staffer sees my “media” badge and inveighs me to leave behind the bumper-to-bumper and pass through the gullets and entrails of the U of L parking lot through to the press lot, where I can glom onto a free shuttle that will move me from here to the Downs.
I don’t want to be sitting here on a bus. I want to be at the red carpet — it’s already a quarter past noon and the red carpet began at noon sharp. I’m missing my chance to poke my mic in the faces of the famous and the infamous. Our driver insists on waiting for more to board, irritating me as he closes and re-opens the swinging doors for each passenger, keeping out the Bluegrass humidity while allowing other journos and wannabe writers to board. Finally we are off, queuing up with other buses and conveyances to unleash the Halloween-esque in front of Churchill Downs.
First stop, the red carpet. I’ve done plenty of these, from the Oscars and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner to more informal events such as premieres at the Navy Memorial near home base in Washington. Here a mix of celebrities, newsies and sports figures walk the carpet in an effort to be seen and have their photos taken to be broadcast throughout the world.
My eyes catch upon the cheat sheet grease board held by a carpet walker announcing Shawn Stockman from the ‘90s R&B band Boyz II Men — once a quartet, now a trio. I catch his eye and call his name. He smiles and ambles over with his date.
“Sean,” I inquire, “how is the band doing as a trio?”
“We miss him,” he says of former member Michael McCary, who left the band in 2003 due to medical issues. “But we continue on,” he says after that pleasant Philadelphia fashion.
I step past the velvet rope to try to get closer, but a minder politely asks that I stay behind the rope. However, the young woman says, might I like a cocktail from her client, Grey Goose, who are offering up freebies to the famosos as they exit the red carpet for the green room.
My hands are busy: iPhone for photos, audio recorder and cocktail. I’m sweating throughout my being in places I didn’t know existed.
Travis Tritt and his wife amble to a TV camera nearby, and I stick my recorder in his vicinity well enough to catch a not particularly enchanting soundbite about how it’s “exciting to come back every year.”
I see staffers disappearing and reappearing from the green room at the terminus of the red carpet. My press badge bears several coded letters on it. I turn it over to find that “G” in fact means red carpet and green room. I inquire of a genial sheriff’s deputy nearby who might I perhaps speak to in order to get backstage. He points out a young woman in a white hat. I show her my badge and plead my case. She seems a tad hesitant, but then waves me backstage.
At the end of the backstage exit ramp I meet an older woman named Cecelia, a native of Newark, New Jersey, but a stone’s throw from where my father was born and raised inElizabeth.
“I’ll make sure you get photos with anyone you want,” she tells me with a conspiratorial smile that is only possible between two persons native to the Garden State.
Everyone, that is, but Megyn Kelly, the Fox News anchor whose security entourage today is impenetrable.
I see a young lady enter the green room bearing a grease board sign that says Richie Sambora, the former lead guitarist of Bon Jovi, will be passing through here.
“I’ll make sure you meet him,” Cecelia says.
I keep my calm about me, but then there he is, the axman making his way down the red carpet with his companion. There is simply no mistaking that hair.
He steps into the green room; Cecelia intercepts him.
“Richie, there is someone here who wants to meet you.”
“Hi, Richie, I’m Eric from The Washington Times. And I’m from New Jersey.”
His face brightens.
“What’s going on, man?”
He pauses just long enough for Cecilia to take a photo of us. Then he’s off, disappearing deeper into the VIP tent.
In-passing interviews and photos happen with Mary Carpenter of The Supremes and Carson Kressley from “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” in what can only be described as the loudest coat in existence. Then there’s Jon Voigt, a known conservative and fan of my paper (and, yes, also father of Angelina Jolie). He’s here with a very, very young fellow, who must be either a grandchild or an extremely fortunate hanger-on.
Mr. Voigt says, “We’ll all be chasing Nyquist, of course, but anything can happen in the Derby.”
Hot on his heels is another Oscar winner, Mira Sorvino, whom I just saw last week in the new film “Mothers and Daughters,” which I reviewed. I inquire of Miss Sorvino if she will perhaps appear in a film down the line with her father, Paul Sorvino, and she says she hopes that will happen “very soon.”
Mark Sanchez! The former quarterback of my alma mater, the USC Trojans, is here, utilizing a walking stick to help him on his way. I introduce myself as from the class of 2000, a little bit ahead of his time, but nonetheless knowledgeable of his era running for the Trojans and also of when he went pro with the Jets. He tells me “Fight on!” and we talk of his time on the gridiron in the Pete Carroll era and of his career since. He’s gracious and humble — perhaps somewhat to do with his less-than-hoped-for NFL career — but gives me enough of his time and a smile.
With SC’s first fall game against Alabama, I tell him that we’re starting off 0-1, to which he replies, “Don’t say that!”
Good lord, they bring in the Stanley Cup! As a New Jersey Devils fan, I’m anxious to get a close look. My Devils last won the cup in 2003, and today it has hawkish minders who are nonetheless allowing me to be photographed with it. Apparently Lord Stanley’s Cup travels in a nondescript black case, like ones that might be used to transport an amplifier.
Gayle King of “CBS This Morning” ambles into the green room with a blue hat amplified by blue ribbons. Even though Nyquist is favored heavily, she’s throwing support behind another horse.
“I know that Nyquist is No. 1, but when I saw there was a horse named Suddenbreakingnews, I could not resist,” she says, acknowledging the 20-to-1 odds.
Miss King gives time to The Louisville Cardinal, the student newspaper of U of L. Its runner, a professor, asks what advice she has for those young adults about to head off into media careers.
“You can always tell instantly who is going to succeed. … Good people always stand out, from the low man on the totem poll to the top,” she says.
“If you’re really good at your job, you will stand out and people will notice.”
I ask her for a photo to memorialize the moment, both for posterity and, perchance, to prove myself as living embodiment of her sage counsel to the minds of tomorrow.
With the red carpet done, it’s time to basically … wander. I’m out of the backstage area and into the general milling of thousands upon thousands of attendees in finery both merry and bright.
My press pass allows me access to almost anywhere, which must somehow be a mistake. I’m not a VIP, or even that knowledgable about horses, but nonetheless here I am, with my badge decreeing access to Millionaires’ Row, the winners circle, most of the floors where the high rollers wine and dine. No one stops me, waving me through as I tap the badge at every port.
In my costume perhaps I look the part — a Yankee trying to fit in at the border state’s most infamous and attended festivus.
With no guidance and infinite curiosity, I aim my prow first for the sign for the Sky Boxes, where I take the elevator to the sixth floor intent on working my way down from there.
On the topmost floor, the gentry are busy placing bets, schmoozing, downing more alcohol than might be found at the Playboy Mansion and no doubt plotting the next steps in the future of America’s money supply.
As I type away at a potential first draft, a fellow comes over and introduces himself as Mark Langston. Dressed to the nines in a pink jacket and with a mint julep in hand, he won’t leave me be until I know that he is president of a company called OctoChem Inc. out of Vandalia, Illinois. A quick cybersojourn to LinkedIn informs me that OctoChem “provides product sample services for biotechnology and chemical companies globally [and] provides reliable sample fulfillment for chemical, biological and hazardous materials.”
It’s his first time to the Derby, and he impressed upon The Washington Times that it was “the best thing he has ever been to,” an assessment no doubt bolstered by his drinks.
There’s a buffet table with fresh-sliced turkey and roast beef — offered by helpful, smiling staffers in chef’s hats — plus vegetables, fingerling potatoes and cookies and desserts. I load up a plateful of nosh, but with no available seating, place my platter atop a garbage bin and whittle away with plastic fork and knife cheerily colored silverware-gray.
Juleps flow from the bar nearby, but no cash seems to be transacted. I order one, am promptly asked if I have “a wristband.” For being not in the cool club, I cough up the special $13 price (plus a $1 tip) for the privilege of drinking in the vicinity of the important.
So be it. It’s my fourth drink of the afternoon, and the first I’ve had to pay for.
A race is imminent. I make my way from the air-conditioned comfort of the Sky Box out onto the balcony as the bugle blares in anticipation. The ponies are off; I scream cheers at whoever is in the lead or second or third or fourth. With nothing from my wallet on the line, I — quite literally — have no horse in this race.
It occurs to me that I’ve left my cigars back in my rental. It’s the one thing I’m kicking myself for amid such a stellar day.
Like the progression of a video game avatar in reverse, I take the elevator down to the 5th floor, hoping to find a different variety of cuisine — just as I did a week ago at the Hilton for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, trading in The Washington Times’ quesadillas for the far more satisfying sushi offered up at the AP party just next door.
To my dismay, however, the feast offerings are precisely of the identical variety as one flight above.
As is true on the 4th floor as well.
I consider starting an inter-floor feud by telling each of the respective levels their food is in fact worse than that above or below, but realize this would be both in bad taste and, more importantly, perhaps impede my ability to pig out at will the remainder of the afternoon.
Everywhere I walk is a feast for the eyes as men, women and even children are dressed for some otherworldly carnival of the senses that blossoms once per annum. I serially compliment other men on their couture choices and get some like comments in return. Women smile and look me in the eye, not in a lecherous or even leering way, but somehow after a particularly polite fashion. For one of the only times in my life, I tip the brim of my cap at several in passing.
Everywhere I go, I use “sir” and “ma’am,” both in deference to the deferential culture but also out of respect for the politeness my parents instilled in us as children.
My next stop is Millionaire’s Row at ground level, figuring there is no way in hell they will allow me to pass beyond its transom. To my surprise, however, I am waved in past the guards and proceed to skulk among the kingmakers dining on — hey now! — slightly different food than that available in the Sky Boxes, temporarily rekindling impish thoughts of starting an internecine war among the one percenters.
“Hey, you with the orange bag!”
For the first time all day, I’m stopped and questioned. Security out front gave me guff about my book bag — containing my laptop and various other tools of the journalistic trade — before realizing I was media. A woman now approaches me, concerned now about same. I show her my press badge and she examines it closely. I’m fully expecting to be booted from the high-rollers’ private realm, but she nods, says I’m “OK,” and is on her way.
My mint julep is empty. Waitrons in blue-checkered shirts amble about, serving up the fat cats. I ask one where I might perhaps get a refill. He takes my glass and whips up a fresh one from a drink dispenser gratis (but I tip him).
Once again, in the grand tradition of American class warfare, those who can most afford luxuries are given them free of charge.
From the lookout
Kentucky-fried humidity is soaking every inch of my person, from my seersucker pants on up to my old hat from Tar-shay. I’m likely not doing my constitution much in the way of a favor by imbibing heavily and basically eschewing water.
My badge says I am also granted “rooftop access,” whatever or wherever that is. I take yet another elevator, which empties into the lobby of a private clubhouse where I am, finally, halted. But where be this rooftop access, I ask the friendly Bluegrass Stater manning the foyer. He shrugs as if uncertain, but points me toward a series of steps behind a door. He watches me go, perhaps wondering if my aim is secretly to slip past him into the innermost sanctum of privilege.
Three flights up and through another door I am deposited onto the roof of Churchill Downs, where there is simply no place to hide from the Kentucky sun. But up here stands guard a team of heavily armed cops with “Metro SWAT” emblazoned on the backs of their jackets. I step toward them, anticipating being chased from whence I came but the coppers pay me barely any heed, which, had my intentions been malevolent, might have cost them — and the beautiful day — dearly.
To the best of my surmising, they are surveying for imminent threats to public safety — almost certainly in communication with colleagues throughout the property and the city. Nearby are a few photogs setting up to capture the next race. The cops are courteous and pleasant, about twice as genial as your average TSA employee. It’s a rather curious combination of folks shooting the breeze: law enforcement, media and one nosy guy here from Washington who just wanted to see where the stairwell led.
Downtown Louisville to the northeast is bathed over by gray clouds that, despite the sunshine, appear malevolently patient. To the southeast is the international airport and to the east the roller-coasters of Kentucky Kingdom, which the roof of the Downs towers over. To the south are gentle, green rolling hills that lead into the heart of bourbon country. My first time in this city, when I lived in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, I was struck by the bluegrass hills’ topography in contrast to the level plains of the Midwest paradigm. My former residence by the University of Illinois is to the great, unmarked west down along and north beyond the Ohio River.
The sky opens, drenching the roof. As I duck for cover indoors, one of the media cameras unspools from its moorings and nearly topples over the railing. Its minder and the cops stop it from falling onto the head of some unfortunate drunk hundreds of feet below and thereby preventing an instant lawsuit. The heavens deluge all for moments before pulling chord and returning sunlight, which reheats the roof and evaporates puddles as briskly as they formed.
A friend of mine asked I make a bet for her and we’ll split the winnings: a $10 each way bet on Exaggerator, who is getting great buzz just behind Nyquist.
Horse betting is a bit too intellectual for my tastes. I’ve only done it once before, at Santa Anita Park in California, and the science behind it, to me, takes too much away from drinking and carousing time. When it comes to gambling I prefer blackjack and roulette, fast-paced activities that don’t require much reading.
The big race, No. 12, the Derby itself, is coming up. I put down my friend’s bet and head back to Millionaire’s Row to refresh my bevvy. Then it’s upstairs again to the 6th floor Sky Box for the big event.
Out on the patio I make the acquaintance of a local African-American gentleman smoking a cigar. Even in America in the 21st century, it shouldn’t strike me as a bit odd to see a person of color at an event like this, but given Louisville’s — and the South’s — history, perhaps I can be forgiven for thinking this.
It occurs to me what a strange place are these United States. But 10 miles away, across the Ohio, is considered “the North,” where the accents are different on the far banks, not quite as Midwestern as in Illinois or Ohio, but Indiana faces her southern friend across a divide that is as mysterious as it is palpable.
While Kentucky is a Southern state, she in fact sided with the Union, and yet Jim Crow laws were as entrenched here as in the Deep states of Mississippi, Alabama and their latitudinal kin. I am reminded of a quote form E.J. Dionne Jr.: ” I believe that the genius of our country is its capacity for self-correction.”
The clouds part. Nyquist, Exaggerator, Suddenbreakingnews, MoTom, Lani and other equines so mysteriously monickered are circumnavigated about the dirt track by their steeds. They shall run on dirt as opposed to the hard track so frequented earlier. The competing horses and their squires are to the starting gate well after the 6:30 promises start time — the so-called most exciting two minutes in sports.
All eyes are focused, all conversation suspended. The sweaty palms of thousands clutch anxiously at wager tickets.
And they’re off.
Nyquist, the heavy favorite, railroads out in front of the pack and owns the 2-kilometer dirt oval. Spectators scream and drunkenly bellow, hoping not only for a win but an exacta or trifecta. I join them. With no cigar this day, it’ll be my best opportunity to thoroughly exhaust my vocal chords.
It’s Nyquist, Exaggerator and Gun Runner one, two, three.
No surprises, no dark horse, no spills or falls or wrath of God upon this sport of kings and their Halloween-festooned acolytes.
From my initial investment of $30, I’m up $18, putting the cost of my one purchased mint julep safely back in my wallet. It remains the only victual I have paid for at the Downs.
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