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Tiptoeing Through the Juleps

Times Staff Writer

There is nothing sillier than watching a husband try to push his wife’s hat box into the overhead storage bin of a commuter jet. The box does not fit. The wife is not happy. The flight attendant doesn’t care. The hat box goes into cargo. The wife cries.

There is nothing sweeter than the smell of horse and hay and apples and dirt and dew and soap before dawn on the backstretch of Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day.

There is nothing more hair-raising than the taste of a mint julep before noon. Bourbon, sugar, mint, ice -- this is not a drink for the faint-hearted or for the light drinker. But the souvenir glass is to be treasured and it does have the names of 128 previous Derby winners. And with a magnifying glass, you can read them all.

There is nothing scarier than taking a program and standing at the betting window if you aren’t a regular bettor. How do you ask for an exacta of Atswhatimtalknbout and Buddy Gil for $20 and another exacta of Buddy Gil and Atswhatimtalknbout for $20? And don’t ask if you can charge that. Cash only.

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There is nothing smellier than the Derby infield. It is not a bad smell. It is the smell of sports -- of beer and pizza, of grilling bratwurst and sun tan lotion. It is the smell of sweaty bodies and dirty feet, of babies needing a diaper change and of Porta Pottis, and of excitement.

The whiff of the horses as they rush by in a breeze. “Who’s that?” You hear that a lot in the infield because, truth be told, you don’t come to the infield to watch the races. You can’t see the horses, except for a peek of a tail or a flash of the jockey’s colors.

Some 148,530 fans have come to Churchill Downs on this first Saturday in May to watch, to cheer, to bet, to drink mint juleps and other cocktails, to model the most outrageous headwear or most eye-popping jacket, to meet old friends, to make new friends, to stand at the rail outside the paddock and hope to feel the hot breath of a thoroughbred as it walks by, back straight, ears quivering, heart pumping to run around a track while all 148,530 humans bellow.

This is the 129th running of the Kentucky Derby.

“America’s race,” trainer Wayne Lukas calls it.

It is the race every horse owner, trainer, rider wants to be in. Even if the horse has no chance. Even if the horse should be carrying children on its back for birthday party rides. Because there is nothing like Derby Day.

On the outside, for the first-time visitor, Churchill Downs can disappoint.

The south-central Louisville neighborhood is filled with small homes with sagging porches, chipped paint, untidy lawns. In the middle of this neighborhood is Churchill Downs and you must be almost at the gate to see the famous twin spires.

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“Park here, $20.” A boy of about 12 in a tattered T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops holds the sign in one of these front yards. Next door, a woman with a beer in her right hand holds a sign with her left. “Park here, $30.” Free enterprise at work. The young boy collects $20 bills, three of them in five minutes. The woman with the beer glares at the young boy.

“Why are you charging $10 more?” a potential customer asks. “I’ve got a better yard,” the woman says, as if it matters. The customer shrugs and gives his money to the boy. The woman spits out an obscenity and waves her sign higher. “Pretty soon people will have no choice,” she says. “My yard will be the only one left.”

And sure enough, an hour later, the woman, still with a beer in her hand, is taking a $20 and a $10 and her yard, the nicer one, is filling up.

Come inside the gates, though. The world changes immediately.

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Churchill Downs is in bloom.

It is a garden of haberdashery, of roses and carnations, of lilies and tulips, marigolds and azaleas, all bursting out of a ground of straw, all planted on tops of the heads of women.

The hat is everything on Derby Day. All the local television channels run Derby Day specials and all the female TV broadcasters have hats. In the lobby of the Marriott is a table filled with unadorned hats and with all the fixin’s for the top of the hats. You can customize your bonnet with ribbons and flora and fauna and the keeper of the table cautions women as they leave. “You don’t want to go to Churchill Downs with a naked head.” It is an excellent sales pitch.

One need only take a couple of steps inside the gate before you breathe in the aroma of bourbon and mint. The mint julep is on sale, from booths, from wandering men carrying the drinks in trays.

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According to the book “The Kentucky Mint Julep,” written by Col. Joe Nickell, the word “julep” dates from ancient times and derives from the Persian word “gulab,” which means “rosewater.” These juleps do not taste of rosewater. Or much of anything except bad bourbon and too much sugar. But it is a tradition and that’s the thing about the Derby.

Tradition matters.

It is why men wear pastel slacks and matching jackets and why women put on dresses they would be embarrassed to wear if they were a bridesmaid. It is why others cram the infield, meeting the same friends, bringing the same food, from the time they are in college until they are too old to walk through the tunnels.

“I’ve brought the burgers, Tom’s brought the brats, Steve’s brought the beers, Tim’s brought the chips and condiments for the last 12 years,” says Hank Boerman, a 33-year-old father of two. Tom and Steve and Tim and Hank went to college together, were in a frat together, began partying in the infield on Derby Day together. “We could afford seats now,” Boerman says, “but why? I don’t want to wear the coat. I want to drink the beer.”

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The infield is also the place where the women will be happy to lift a shirt and where the guys will be happy to appreciate those women. By about mid-day, the infield is not a place for anyone easily embarrassed by a certain amount of nudity and vomiting.

That’s the charm of the Derby, though. There is “Millionaire Row” for Travis Tritt or Anna Nicole Smith or party-giver extraordinaire Mary Lou Whitney, for women wearing gloves and men wearing top hats, and there is the infield for shirtless guys and their tank top-wearing girlfriends.

In line at the betting windows are the experts with their Daily Racing Forms and their magnifying glasses and their heads full of formulas and numbers and convictions that the dosage number is the most important thing in the world. Behind them are the novices who are going to put two dollars on Peace Rules because, “Don’t you think we should have peace in the world?”

But, finally, it is 40 minutes until post time for the 10th race, the Kentucky Derby. The ground is covered now with all the losing tickets from races 1 through 9. There are squashed flowers and even some abandoned hats.

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Hundreds of people have crowded the paddock area where the 16 Derby horses, the day’s royalty, parade for the masses. Their coats sparkle in the sun. Their tails wave away the flies, their ears twitter at the applause, at the oohs and aahs, at the appreciation they are receiving.

These horses make a long walk to the oval track. These finely tuned, enormously nervous, twitching, eager athletes navigate a narrow path between waving arms and desperate shouts of encouragement, of need, from the gambler who absolutely must have one big score, from the fan who just wants to look into the dark eyes of these magnificent animals.

And finally.

There is nothing more emotional, more likely to put a lump in your throat, more able to raise a goose bump on your arm than the sound of the call to the post for the Derby and the playing of the sweet and haunting “My Old Kentucky Home.”

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A person doesn’t need to be from Kentucky. A person only needs to be from somewhere, to understand the pull of roots, of family and friends, of familiar notes from a bugle or bluegrass under the toes.

And then, they’re off.


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