My husband and I went to the Kentucky Derby last Saturday. This was surprising to some people who know us. It was also surprising to us. It is not something people who grew up rural Mennonite generally put on their bucket lists.
As if to confirm how out-of-place we should feel at such an event, the last quarter-mile of the long walk from our parked car to Churchill Downs was lined with preachers shouting repentance. “The ways of the world do not satisfy!” “You are marching straight into hell!” Yeah, right. These were voices from our childhood. And there we were in our hats, strutting along with the sinful crowds to our choice seats in the crowded stadium, right next to the track, right at the finish line.
The day turned out to be a rich immersion in tradition–the traditions of a 143-year-old sporting event, Southern culture, and the family of our daughter-in-law, Linnea.
You can learn a lot from TV. We knew about the hats and dressing up and mint juleps. I knew “My Old Kentucky Home” from grade-school music class (some of the racist lyrics have been changed). I’ve often followed the stories of horses, trainers, and owners participating in the Triple Crown races, though not this year. I had no idea who was in the running and it didn’t matter because the outcome of the race had little to do with why we were going.
We were guests of Linnea and our son, Jesse. Linnea and her sister, Cynthia, inherited the box on the finish line from their uncle Paul. The box had been the domain of their maternal grandfather, Harold “Red” Peterson, a Louisville businessman who had earned the right to buy regular box tickets by going to the Derby every year for decades. When the Derby began charging a large up-front fee for that privilege Red was about to give up the seats but his son, Paul, bought the license so they could keep the box. When Paul died tragically several years ago (following a fall after a Derby party), not long after Red passed away, the license went to Cynthia.
Linnea and Cynthia’s mother died when they were in their 20s. Thus the Derby tradition is doubly important, if bittersweet, for them as the only survivors of their mother’s family. Their husbands have embraced the tradition. Each year the two couples either attend or find buyers for the pricey tickets in order to maintain the license.
Linnea made sure that we got the full experience, including fried green tomatoes at lunch. I ordered real Kentucky fried chicken (yum, worth the heartburn). We dutifully drank mint juleps in very breakable Derby glasses, except for Linnea, who prefers the Lily, the drink of the Kentucky Oaks, the fillies races the day before the Derby.
This year Linnea and Jesse’s six-month-old son, Rowan, took in his first Derby. Dressed to the nines in striped pants, suspenders, bowtie, and straw derby, Rowan turned more heads than the most elaborately chapeaued damsels. Press photographers scanning the crowd between races inevitably focused on the blue-eyed baby in his little hat. Linnea reported, “Doing a diaper change in the overcrowded bathroom of a hundred ladies was the craziest experience of ooh’s and awww’s.”
The weather was crazy–bright sun, intermittent showers, temperatures unseasonably cool in the 50s. This did not deter the fashion-forward. One young woman in a short, strapless dress stood stoically behind us, her skin covered uniformly with goosebumps. I grannied up in tights, shawl, and raincoat and let my cheap hat get ruined by the showers.
The Peterson family motto is, “We’ll be fine by Derby time.” Linnea says it’s worked for them every time. It did again this year. The rain stopped before the big race though the track was officially described as sloppy. It was especially entertaining to watch the thoroughbreds’ human entourages–mostly owners and their families, I suppose–make the same pre- and post-race treks as the horses. Some wore rubber boots or covered their shoes in plastic booties but many braved the mud in strappy high heels, just like they do in Kinshasa.
Oh, the races? Well there are 14 of them, beginning at 10:30 am. The Derby is the 12th, but who knows if anyone stays for the last two. They are different distances, some on turf and others on the track, different ages of horses. I didn’t pay much attention, just stood up every hour or so and watched the horses parade by to the gates and then come flying by 15 minutes later in a spray of mud. Jesse was placing small bets by a phone ap. I admired a small horse called Bal A Bali in a preliminary race and Jesse bet on him but he didn’t place. None of us won anything. It didn’t matter. I got a good picture of the eventual Derby winner, Always Dreaming, on his way to the gate.
If you are interested in the races, watch TV. But nothing beats being there, especially right next to the track, at the finish line, with an excellent view of both the races and the crowds around you.
If this was the height of sinfulness, it sure was fun. I’m glad I risked my soul.