Crowds take cover as the horses start to line up…

It Started with India

“So, what was the most important thing you learned after living in India for two years?”

Just days over 25 years old, this college graduate and I huddled over a trash can in the pouring rain.

It was one of those moments where everything around you sort of drops away because you take time to discover the person in front of you is actually interesting. Even more interesting and odd because of where we were.

Around us, concert-level noise throbbed. The energy was palpable. Thousands of brightly colored hats, bow ties, linen suits and festive dresses mingled, protected by various lengths of plastic ponchos. Ponchos that were selling out quickly….


Temporary fashionistas smiled, laughed, snapped and chatted, taking the required selfies to memorialize their place in the pouring rain under a very limited amount of shelter at “the most exciting two minutes” in the sporting world.

Meanwhile, over a trash can which had been converted to a temporary table by a piece of cardboard, where we studied the race program and chose hoped-for winners, India met Kentucky.

“I learned that when you live in a country with over a billion people, you’re going to have to talk to someone…to interact. It’s not like here, in America, where you can actually go days without talking to a single soul. Everyone seems to be ‘communicating’ by text and social media and yet, they never speak a single word. It’s different.”

We both laughed at our brief yet deep conversation about life, society, and archaeology (his major) while the crowd pressed in around us, the easy flow of strong mint juleps lowering inhibitions and raising spirits. Surprisingly, even with that many people in a small-ish space, everyone was happy even though we were very soggy!

The paddocks were nearby. Powerful, well-trained, thoroughbreds waited. Alert yet calm. Owners and trainers gathered, smiling and hoping…some visibly nervous, others calm and alert (like their horses). Everyone seemed happy to have earned a place at what is often a muddy track at Churchill Downs in May.

Good to know: Chances of rain are high in Louisville, Kentucky during the month of May, so if you go to the Derby, be prepared to get wet. Don’t worry…it’s fun!

The Derby

The Kentucky Derby has been run every year since 1875…

This was the Kentucky Derby.

Over 157,000 people (the eighth highest attendance numbers in the history of the Derby) flocked to the track in Louisville, Kentucky for the American tradition in horse racing.

The skies were a mixture of rain and brief (very brief) pauses of sunshine with an emphasis on rain.

Even so, spirits and hats were high.

The Derby has been running continuously since 1875 thanks to the enthusiasm of all kinds of people. Horseracing has been credited with having the ability to break down barriers of “class and countrymen.”

An 1800’s account from, “The American Turf” stated:

“While the turf owes so much of its present popularity and success to unselfish devotion and unstinted expenditure on the part of men of wealth, it remains a truly democratic sport, the legitimate pleasures of which can be shared by all classes, and which is therefore eminently suited to the spirit that animates our national life.”

In fact, it goes on, horse racing “arouses the spirit of national pride…”

Horse racing is deep in Kentucky blood. The oldest horse racing track opened in Lexington in 1823.  While other states shut down horse racing during the Civil War, Kentucky kept running.

Horse racing is the great equalizer…

Kentucky blue grass proved to be particularly nutritious and helped develop the best qualities in the racing thoroughbreds who ate it. But grass alone wasn’t enough to build a Derby.

It took the grandson of a well-known explorer to turn this Southern tradition into an event where hundreds of thousands of spectators gather, and millions more tune in, every year.  We can thank The Colonel for our ability to collectively watch in awe and wonder as an elite class of 1000-pound beauties, muscle and flesh, powerfully run10 furlongs jockeying for a position to wear a garland of roses.

Not that Colonel.

Colonel Clark (aka Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr.), grandson of legendary explorer William Clark, was instrumental to Kentucky and the Derby becoming a key player in the world of horse racing.

After America’s civil war, Colonel Clark learned everything he could about the existing turf scene in the richer Northern states. Then, he spent several years in Europe studying the turf systems of England and France. Upon returning to the States he established the Jockey Club in Louisville. The Kentucky Derby was the first fruits of his plans.

The rest, as they say, is history.  

The People

Laila Ali (in red), daughter of boxer Muhammad Ali, waits to call “riders up” before the main event…

With attendance numbers topping 157,000 you would think there would be complete chaos as the rain continued to downpour on the crowd. It was, however, quite the opposite. The people were friendly and in good spirits. After all, this was the horse race of the year!

We met people from all over the country.

The “girl’s weekend” group of ex-college roommates from California, New York and Ohio meeting up, taking selfies, and laughing at themselves and their slightly wilted hats;

The colorful gentleman from Chicago who shared the merits of his chosen profession with us (note to self, do not attempt to sell, um…slur, your professional services to potential clients when you are slightly intoxicated on mint juleps!);

The clever family reunion group which huddled under cover of a dozen ponchos ingeniously patchworked together, making sure their elders had the driest section;

And all the seer-sucking, feathered hat and boa wearing individuals who were having the time of their lives.

Simply…it was a party!

The Horses

The horses…running on better conditions…

Powerful. That’s the only word you can really use to describe the beautiful animals that run the derby. It’s not only the muscles, the discipline, and the training that make them powerful. It’s the confidence and pure joy they seem to get from the whole thing.

We ask, “Do you think they know…” as we watch the front runner strut past an adoring crowd with tongue hanging out playfully from his lips.

All this fuss…and they are just going out to play in the mud.

And mud was plenty!

If you plan to go to the infield to get closer to the action, bring a pair of rubber boots. It can get sloshy out there and you wouldn’t want to miss it simply because you have the wrong sort of shoes.

The Race

At the gate (not the Derby…but this is horse racing!)…

You know those movies where everything seems to be going against you. The rain is pouring down. The track is wet. The mud is deep. The horses run and run and then, at the final moment, there is a break in the clouds and the sun shines for a glorious, unexpected ending?

Yeah….that didn’t happen.

As the horses turned the final corner, it rained harder!

2018 brought more rain than sun to the track. In fact, it set a new record, breaking the previous rainfall record recorded 100 years earlier.

No matter…it was all worth it. From your first mint julep, to the moment the Derby horses crossed the finish line, and then the personal foot-race in pouring rain to the parking lot, the Kentucky Derby proved to be a bucket-list worthy “two-minutes” of horse racing fun.

My new Kentucky friend had said, “when you live in a country with over a billion people, you’re going to have to talk to someone…to interact.” Not like in America.

Yet, on a rainy day at Churchills Downs, where thousands abandoned their ticketed, assigned, and uncovered seats along the track in order to seek cover in General Admission, talk we did!

You are destined to learn something about yourself and others as you cross over socially acceptable personal space, welcomed with a southern smile, in order to get an up-close glimpse of legends in the making.

That, my friends, is the Kentucky Derby Experience.