LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Danielle Bunker’s flowery hat drooped and rain dripped from her pink poncho as she settled into the waterlogged Churchill Downs infield, but she wasn’t going to let gloomy weather dampen her Kentucky Derby bachelorette party.
“It’s all in the experience,” Bunker, 28, said Saturday morning as she munched on a pretzel and prepared for a daylong party with nine friends who set up lawn chairs near the giant videoboard looming over the infield.
“We’re bummed but we’re from Ohio, so we’re used to it,” she said of the unfavorable weather. “We’ll make do.”
Morning rain, combined with steady rainfall the day before, turned part of the sprawling infield into a muddy pit hours before the Derby on Saturday. But hardy fans staked out spots to watch what for some was a first-time experience and for many was a yearly pilgrimage to the world’s most famous horse race.
The early rain didn’t spoil the party for the crowd of 158,070 - the seventh-largest in the race’s 143-year history - that watched Always Dreaming win the Run for the Roses. The rain clouds departed before the race.
Ponchos and rain boots were in fashion on a day usually devoted to sundresses, fancy suits and people-watching between horse races. Sunshine emerged by early afternoon, but fans endured another round of late-afternoon showers, briefly forcing them to break out rain gear again. The rain moved out of the area well before the Derby went off in the early evening. The last Derby run on a sloppy track was 2013 when Orb splashed home in front.
While the well-heeled and those with the right connections stayed dry under cover, fans on the infield endured a wet, cold morning when temperatures were in the 40s.
Bobby McGohon from nearby Lexington, attending his 33rd straight Derby, constructed a makeshift tent with lawn chairs and tarps to stay dry. Another tarp served as a floor to keep his feet dry.
“We’ve got it down,” he said. “We’ve been preparing for this. We’ve got everything we need.”
Erin Smith and Melissa Logan made a run for cover on the infield as the morning rain poured.
“This is totally cramping my style,” said Logan, a 37-year-old from Colorado, a coat zipped up over the dress she bought new for her first Derby.
They made their own fascinators in blue and yellow, piled high with feathers and price tags exceeding $100.
Smith lives in Louisville and was attending the Derby for the seventh time. “This is the absolute worst one,” she moaned over the rain. “Usually I worry whether I brought enough sunscreen. Today, I bought a $15 poncho.”
Many fans wore multiple layers of clothes to contend with the cold, damp conditions. Kelly Stariha, a Kentucky native, has a three-footwear strategy for braving the infield during dreary Derbies that she shared with her two friends visiting from Michigan. Each woman wore rain boots, then tucked a pair of heels and a pair of flip flops in their purse.
“So when we want to feel posh, we can leave the galoshes here,” she said from their muddy camp along the fence at the backstretch. “We wear flips through the mud to the grandstand, then change into heels and pretend for a while.”
Sherry Vigeant drove from Massachusetts so her daughter, Sophie, could celebrate her 14th birthday at the Derby. Mom and daughter sported new outfits and hats, but a last-minute purchase at Wal-Mart was their most practical one as they prepared for a wet day in the grandstand.
“Our 99-cent ponchos are probably the most important thing that we have here,” Sherry Vigeant said.
Tyler Lavoie, a 23-year-old soldier from nearby Fort Knox, draped a plastic poncho over his multicolored suit. He decided to attend his first Derby before shipping out for his next Army assignment in Alaska later in the month.
“It kind of sucks,” he said of the foul weather. “But we’re still going to bet, still going to drink. So we’ll be fine.”
Lavoie said he’s used to being out in tough weather conditions as a soldier, but planned to find cover at the track.
“We’ve been in the rain a lot,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean we like to be.”
Amid the usual Derby fare of celebrities, pomp and fashion, there was a quirky side. Peggy Miller plodded around the track dressed as a trash can filled with empty beer cans. “I’m representing all the partiers,” the 59-year-old Derby regular said.
“They’re selling them for $15 here,” Smith said. “Forget betting. That’s how to make some money.”
Reporters Dylan Lovan and Claire Galofaro contributed to this report.
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