Bourbon-soaked urban poor. Gold diggers. Nouveau riche jerks. Abortion-loathing evangelists. Would-be dandies from the middle of the mall.
If sports are a way of understanding civilizations, consider the Kentucky Derby a sort of American Rosetta Stone. It?s a socioeconomic biopsy, a rare moment in the history of this country where the rich and the poor unabashedly assume their respective roles in close proximity.
Prideful Lou-uh-vull-yuns. Actual dandies. Cigar-smoking baby-boomers. And, of course:
Beautiful women. Beautiful women. Beautiful women.
It?s 530p on Derby Day, and despite the sea of bourbon burning in my stomach, I am freezing cold. Perched in the Skye Terrace, I survey Churchill Downs in its entirety. Today, it's as much a sh*tshow as the people that occupy it.
The racetrack itself -- a 1.25 mile oval of soft dirt that?s been the stage of household horse names like Secretariat & Seabiscuit -- is this afternoon little more than a moat of caramel-colored mud. Like me, the world-famous track is a victim of the torrential downpour that?s pounded the Louisville, Kentucky, area since the early morning.
Normally a sunny day awash in local pride and NBC?s ?reporting? fluff, the Derby been reduced to a chilly obligation for the well-heeled, well-hatted whiskey gentry. But as the U of L choir?s rendition of ?My Old Kentucky Home? wafts over the drenched crowd, the cloud part. Something close to sun pokes meekly through murk.
We forget the unfortunate conditions for a few short minutes. There?s a race to be watched.
Today is the 139th meeting of the Derby, which has been running since 1875. The crowd on hand for the 2013 running will apparently register as Churchill Downs' ninth-largest, despite the rain. A three year-old named Orb will, in just a few minutes, slingshot himself around the sloppy track to a victory here.
But enough about the race. Horses weren?t why I was sent to Kentucky, and they?re likely not the reason you?re reading this. No, I was at Churchill to take in the spectacle of it all, this liquor-fueled, pomp-and-circum-circus that?s improbably clawed its way to near the top of NBC?s prized stable (!) of sports-broadcasting properties even as the Sport of Kings has slid deeper into irrelevance.
Before I?d retreated to the relative comfort of the Skye Terrace (where tickets can command over $2,000 USD per person), I?d been hot-stepping my way around the grounds. Churchill Downs is comprised of a sprawling, confusing labyrinth of boxes, suites, parking lots, balconies, paddocks, barns, platforms, and grandstands, and in my quest to capture the heart of this once-colloquial, increasingly-corporatized event, I?d been pretty much everywhere.
Betting Windows Are Churchill's Litmus of Privilege
Churchill is like the house in your old neighborhood, the one your parents hate because it's received tons of different, random additions, making it look like a jumbled mess. Originally, the facility was just the Grandstand, which sat between the Twin Spires you always hear so much about. Now, though, it's got oodles of different areas to it -- and there are barely any signs.
This struck me as weird at first, before a girl pointed out that without press access (thanks, America's Best Racing!), people didn't really have the opportunity to move around a bunch. So yeah, there aren't really signs telling you how to get from one area to another, and I found myself constantly confused.
But one thing helped navigate: The appearance of the betting windows, which varies widely depending on the area you're in.
In the infield (where lawlessness approaches Thunderdome levels) the windows are housed in squat brick buildings without walls, guarded by peeling paint, and manned by lunatic tellers who speak varying levels of English.
By contrast, Millionaires Row has private betting areas that're topped in something like marble, with gold chrome accents and friendly attendants who'll patiently wait as you stumble through proper betting terminology, then wish you luck. It's a very small, but very apparent visual reminder of the sort of class distinctions that're literally built in to the Kentucky Derby.
Fratheads Say ?Shout?
11a ? 8 1/2 hours to go:
I pull into an overflow lot beneath the soaring grandstand of Papa John?s Cardinals Stadium, the heavily branded, newly built football cathedral where the University of Louisville does battle. Papa John is something of a local celebrity here; and like most celebrities, people have very mixed feelings about him.
?Everyone has their stories about John?, explained one well-dressed Loiusville investment analyst I?d met the night before at a house party in a stately suburban neighborhood off Cherokee Road. ?Most of the time, the moral is ?John?s a dick.??
But, as he went on to qualify, the pizza magnate has done plenty to put Louisville on the map, funding massive public projects that include the stadium, public parks, and a whole sh*tload else.
It?s clear that the stadium has given the locals -- already noticeably proud Southern people -- even more gusto regarding Cardinals sports; even on Derby, most of the tents in the lot are crimson, emblazoned with U of L logos. In & around them, people are getting f**ked up.
At the end of my row, there?s a massive black RV the size of a tour bus. Around it dance a cadre of at least 20 overweight fratheads in lacrosse pinnies and Lacoste shirts.
They are soaking wet, and piss drunk, and from 40 yards away I can hear Otis Day & The Time?s version of ?Shout?.
There?s not a girl in sight. It?s not even noon.
I haven?t had a drop of alcohol since the night before, when I was up into the wee hours of the morning sipping Russell?s Reserve 10 Year Old Bourbon with my host, a Lexington transplant with a marbly drawl and a faint resemblance to Phil, the dad from Modern Family. I am in no mood for this sh*t, so I try to give the party a wide berth.
The fratheads sense my fear, and dance around me as I walk by. One slaps me on the ass. It?s not even noon. Another stumbles over a beer can he?s just tossed to the ground, and just falls knees-first to the asphalt.
It?s not even noon.
?SINNERS WILL BURN IN THE ETERNAL FIRES OF HELL!?
1145a ? 7 hours 45 minutes to go
The Louisvillians I meet are categorically pleased to be the focus of media attention of any kind. Again: very proud.
They all want to help. They all want to hand me a beer. It?s pretty much the opposite of trying to speak with the Bible-beating evangelists who inexplicably decide to picket the Derby. I can hear their megaphoned screes before I can see them on the way from the stadium to the horse track.
?They?ve been doing that for a few years now?, said the clearly underage girl selling me beer from a cooler on the side of the road (there is very loose enforcement around this clearly illegal vending, which is widespread, and totally killer.)
?They?re just pissed off ?cause they?re stupid.?
These evangelists also might be pissed off because no one is paying attention to them. I walk past one group after another (I count seven or eight total, by days end), and try to engage a few in conversation.
One dude deigns to pause his fire-and-brimstoning to talk to me... kind of. It?s only to yell at me through his megaphone that mine is ?a face of sin?. His son (or at least, some wayward youth that had been Pied-Piper?d into peddling hate) tried to shove a pamphlet into my hand.
?No thanks?, I say.
?Go to hell then, bitch!? He screams. He can?t be more than 10 years old.
It?s not even noon.
Deadliest Catch at the Races
1200p ? 6 hours, 30 minutes to go
Tickled by my exchange with this little hate mongrel, I press onward. The crowd gets thicker full of expensive sundresses and cheap beer. Up ahead, it sounds like a drunk Travis Barker is going berserk on a Tupperware set.
As the crowd parts, I see row of black men clothed in matching, head-to-toe, Gorton?s Fisherman-style rubber slicker-suits are sitting in the middle of the road, pounding on five-gallon buckets. Their drumming courses through the drunken hordes.
White college in floppy straw sunhats made floppier by the rain are popping and locking ? or, the sort of stilted dancing that white girls think is popping and locking ? along to the beat.
This is like watching a strange fish-out-of-water episode of Deadliest Catch, where the producers try to make ratings really sizzle by introducing both women AND minorities to the boats.
Panhandlers are trying to sell someone, anyone, drugstore cigars. ?Cubans!?, screams a half-toothless man dressed in a Harley-Davidson t-shirt. He is holding a box of drugstore cigarillos.
Out of pity, I ask him how much for a ?Cuban?.
I do not buy the Cuban.
"You Could... He'd Just Catch You, Though."
1230p -- 6 hours to go
After shouldering my way through the madness of Churchill?s Gate 3, but before I make it to the red carpet to scream at Scottie Pippen about his late-career productivity, I arrive at the press entrance.
F**king #media, kids! We #outchea! My smugness disappears when I realize that everyone else already has their press credentials. I have to wait outside the gate, literally out in the rain, while someone brings it to me.
Sometimes, being #outchea sucks.
While I wait, I speak with a pair of security personnel, part of the private army (operated by a company called Brantley) that assists law enforcement in keeping the hordes at bay. I ask them if they noticed a groundswell in presence after the Boston attacks.
The guys ? two 20-something enlisted men who?re raising money for the families in their battalion to live off when they get deployed in a month ? estimate there could be 30% more men on the ground today than last year. ?Big show of force?, one says, and shrugs.
From outside Churchill?s walls, I hear the first race go off. The crowd roars. I look around, growing impatient.
?What if I just made a run for it right now?, I joke with the smarter of the two guards. ?Think I could get to the gate?? It?s about 40 yards away.
He looks at me and smirks. ?You could?, he muses, pondering it himself. ?But he?d just catch you.? He nods to his companion, who is far taller and well-built. He looks like Vin Diesel -- like, A Man Apart Vin Diesel. He glares at me, no longer friendly. I wait for my pass in the rain.
Welcome to Millionaires Row
130P -- 5 hours to go
Finally, I am inside the hallowed walls of Churchill Downs. Lots of people (including me, before researching this story) don?t know that the Churchill Downs facility is actually owned by the same-named corporation (CHDN) a publicly held company that also owns several similar properties of lesser stature around the country.
With this model, Churchill has managed to stave off the dire fiscal straits that other tracks have found themselves in; but with shareholders comes obligation, comes a seemingly never-ending push for more premium ticketed areas like Millionaires Row.
?I think people understand that this is the only way they can preserve the tradition, is to build on it?, mused a St. Louis native I spoke to under a shelter during a downpour in the paddock. He chuckles.
?But most of that crap is for stuck-up douchebags.?
Eager to be surrounded by my people, instead of the drenched middle-of-the-mall hordes, and determined to take full advantage of my press access (the only place I wasn't allowed, ironically, was The Mansion, a hyper-luxe suite in the former site of the press corps. Tickets reportedly go for $12,500 each. Yeah, I wasn't invited.) I wound up at Millionaire's Row.
There were a few stuck-up douchebags, sure -- peacocking meatheads in pinstripe Hugo Boss off the rack; smokin'-hot trophy-wife types teetering around in Louboutins and hats that look like the f**king Tree of Souls from Avatar. But must of the people I met and drank with were just quiet, wealthy Southern/Midwestern folks; a lot of them were families.
This was not the ivory tower full of staggering-drunk Boiler Room extras & their women that I had been promised. I placed some bets, ate some food, and found the escalator. I was headed back out into the squall.
I was headed for the infield.
?Your Sh*t Just Got Pissed On, Bitch!?: The Infield
240p -- 3 hours 50 minutes to go
The tunnel leading to the infield is dark & damp, like one that you would take to escape East Berlin in the height of the USSR being a dick. It's surreal to realize that directly above the bomb-shelter-esque cement ceiling, through 15' of earth, is the dirt track.
Mostly, this is hard to grasp because down here it sounds like I'm marching into gladiatorial battle.
Every 20', someone starts a "U-S-A!" chant, which ripples throughout the tunnel at deafening speed.
"U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!""
This place reeks of stale piss & fresh vomit. The crowd is nothing like that on Millionaires Row; more working-class, fewer sundresses, and a LOT of fratheads. A pair of Vineyard Vines-clad bros are next to me; one asks the other, "Are you ready for the craziest place ever?!?!"
His friend doesn't respond, instead steeling himself like a soldier before a D-Day beach landing.
All of a sudden, the air gets fresher. We're outside again. It's freezing now -- the rain has picked up, making the temperature that much worse. Above us, the grandstand soared into the grey sky. I felt like I was in the Coliseum.
The ground is covered in mud. To my right, sh*tfaced 20-somethings are doing slip-'n-slides down an incline, sliding so fast that they cruise off the mud and onto the asphalt, only to get up with bloody arms & chests.
I pass by a person -- I can't tell the gender, as his/her face is in his/her hands -- slumped on a bench, covered in puke. Just like a homeless dude in New York City, no one pays him/her any mind -- which is astonishing considering how hospitable most Louisvillians have been thusfar. Faces drift by in the rain, screwed up in bourbon grimaces.
By far the funniest/scariest thing about the infield is how District 9 it all is. Ambulances just patrol the makeshift avenues of the quagmire, looking for bodies to drag out. "MORE MEAT!" screams a fat, drunk, middle-aged man as one passes by. The proles lack the ability to build community or feel compassion!
After slogging about for twenty more minutes, and placing a bet, the rain gets even worse. I make a break for the second tunnel -- which leads directly back into the grandstand. It's mobbed with people. Most are shuffling through. Some are standing in packs, blocking traffic. The New Yorker in me gets immediately furious.
As I'm about to say something, one of the stationary groups breaks apart for a moment, and a goatee'd dude thrusts his face into a woman's personal space.
"Feel that?!" He leers at her. "Your sh*t just got pissed on, bitch!" He high-fives his buddies.
"My Old Kentucky Home"
5p -- 1 hour 30 minutes to go
After the warzone of the infield, I headed up to Skye Terrace to carve out a vantage point for the actual Derby. Nothing really exciting happened here -- it was a great, above-average ticketed area with a pleasant bar and pleasant people. The gambling windows were pretty nice, but a little grimy; the staff was helpful, and comprised mostly of elderly white people.
The Derby itself is a mere two minutes, but with an hour remaining, the scene becomes noticeably more tense. People keep pounding juleps & Champagne, but gradually they all start to turn their attention to the track. The biggest thresh comes with about 30 minutes to go, when the University of Louisville band & choir march onto the turf inside the track to sing "My Old Kentucky Home".
The state's official song really isn't much of a fight song -- it's quiet, tranquil & eerie, dominated by low horns & flutes. But as their voices float over the hushed track through the mist, it's chilling. From this moment forward, all the bullsh*t of this cultural circus took a backseat. It was almost race time.
"And They're IN the Gate!"
The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports is just that -- over before you know it. The crowd, addled as it is by liquor and discomfort, roars its appreciation, reaching a sort of fever-pitch right as the announcer breathlessly screams, "And they're IN the gate!" Once the horses take off, it's a deafening mix of sounds: howling, crooning, etc.
There was some loser next to me who thought it was hilarious to the Anchorman "LOUD NOISES" thing; he was almost 50, which actually did make it kind of hilarious. But that's pretty much it. The horses get to the back stretch, and everyone's eyes swing to the massive monitor in the infield.
Then, it's a guessing game -- when do you switch your gaze to Turn #3, to see the horses burst back into view? As they pound down the home stretch, the notes of agony in the din rise considerably.
People realize their horses can't make up the ground; won't surge for a run on the rail; couldn't handle the mud the way they'd hoped.
Charming Kitten loses his steam, Vyjack loses his way. My Derby is over almost a football field before the finish line.
Orb wins, I lose, and all of a sudden everyone remembers they're wet & cold as they squint at cryptic tickets trying to figure out if they hit any parimutuels. The spell is broken.
We all file out in a drunken daze, hoping that the bourbon will wear off soon.