Tomorrow is the one day a year when I feel sorry for everyone in the world who doesn't live in Louisville, Kentucky. For all of you out there, the Kentucky Derby is a TV show that lasts too long, a two minute race stretched out to hours of sappy coverage.
But here in Louisville, the Derby is the orgasmic ending of a two-week party that is the anchor of our year. When I moved here, I thought it was funny how people related things to Derby. "Let's see," someone would say, trying to remember when something happened, "it was about month after Derby..." I thought that was so quaint and funny. Now, I do it all the time, without thinking. Derby is our solstice, our New Year, the event that marks the end of one cycle and the beginning of the next.
My wife and I are bypassing Derby this year as much as anyone in Louisville can bypass Derby. As my regular reader knows, I'm unemployed and we're living cheap. But without really thinking about it we sampled a bit of the Derby Festival; we went for pork sandwiches at the Chow Wagon and sipped local wines at the WineFest. Tonight we'll attend a private Derby party, as opposed to the big public events that draw the likes of Paris Hilton to town, and tomorrow we'll go to a friend's house for race festivities.
Louisville is, at heart, a small town. There's simply no way for 500 private jets, worldwide media, and about 100,000 tourists to come into town without changing the city's center of gravity. You can try to avoid the event, but unless you go on vacation or board up your windows there's really no way to do it. Derby is, simply, everywhere, and its influence is overwhelmingly positive. Every place in town puts its best foot forward. You'd do the same thing if the whole world came to your neighborhood for a visit.
We've brought friends in for Derby, and no matter how prepared and excited they think they are, they are inevitably blown away by the experience. Last year I watched the race from a VIP suite with a group of roughly 30 business associates who exist in a world of high-cost perks. Every one of them has been everywhere in the world for free, tucking into Wolfgang Puck buffets and touring the backstreets of Mallorca on someone else's dime. No matter that their initial reactions had been ho-hum. "I'm not into horse racing much," one said when we announced the trip. I asked him how he felt as we left the track after the race, and he put his arm around my shoulder and shouted, "Best trip ever. Best fuckin' trip ever."
I know of no one who has ever been to Derby and been disappointed.
Tomorrow, a couple of hundred thousand people will converge on Churchill Downs. Most of them will be dressed beautifully, looking as good as they ever look. The women will wear big hats and springy dresses, and the men will drop their gray flannel plumage in favor of light linen jackets and brightly colored ties. Everyone will be smiling broadly. The horses will be magnificent, the pageantry as timeless as the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. People will drink half-million mint juleps and lay down $25 million in bets, most of it $2 at a time. Gentlemen will kiss their ladies a bit more vigorously than they do any other day of the year, at least in public. By the time the starting gates open on the day's 11th race -- the Derby itself -- the entire crowd will be not just on its feet, but on it's toes, screaming with excitement and joy and celebration and the knowledge that for two minutes, Churchill Downs is at the absolute center of the universe.
There is simply nothing like it. Before you die, come here and experience it, even if it's from a blanket spread out in the infield. That moment, that instant when the fastest horses in the world go from motionless confinement to running as hard as they will ever run in their blessed, pampered lives, when the crowd goes from anticipation to ecstasy...that is a moment everyone should experience once.
In Louisville, we get to experience it every year.