Sports

My Kentucky Derby: All dressed up and somewhere to go

But if I'd only taken the right long shot ...

Gazette sports columnist Mike Hlas poses at the Kentucky Derby Saturday at Louisville’s Churchill Downs.
Gazette sports columnist Mike Hlas poses at the Kentucky Derby Saturday at Louisville’s Churchill Downs.
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The sun shines bright on the old Kentucky home?

I’ll have to take the Commonwealth’s word on that. It rained Saturday at the first Kentucky Derby I’ve attended. It rained all day. It rained three inches. It was the rainiest Derby Day of the 144 they’ve had.

It also didn’t matter. Not to me, anyway, because our group had the good fortune of having outdoor seats underneath a Churchill Downs roof.

The tens of thousands of people in the infield got waterlogged, but seemed to have a grand time all the same. At least that’s how it looked from the grandstand. I wasn’t about to go out there to see firsthand and ruin the once-every-decade shine I gave my shoes.

See, there was a dress code where I sat. I don’t know if it’s written or unwritten, but you have to get dressed up. Not like you’re going to a business meeting or funeral, though. Yes, for men it’s jackets, ties, dress pants. However, the look ranges from bright to loud to look-at-me-right-now!

Stripes and plaids were plentiful. Hot pink and limey lime weren’t uncommon. The combinations were endless.

I bought a classic navy blazer because classic things never go out of style. Also because I wanted to wear it more than once. Unlike the rose-colored bow tie and straw hat I also donned.

This was like prom for adults, but with less anxiety and more horses than the high school version. The females did it up even better, with 99.9 percent of them wearing showy wide-brimmed hats to go with their snazzy dresses.

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Many of the hats had flowers. Some had feathers. Most could be described as flamboyant. If you saw a woman wearing one in everyday life, you’d wonder if you or her or both had sampled too much Kentucky bourbon. But here, the over-the-top hats are an expected part of the deal.

As is drinking a mint julep.

“You have to try one,” said a woman on a Louisville local news telecast Saturday morning.

“They’re not very good,” replied her male co-anchor, who probably had been exiled out of the state by noon for stating such heresy.

I took one sip of the cocktail consisting of bourbon, sugar, water, crushed ice, and sprigs of mint large enough to make a salad. One sip was plenty. And I don’t dislike mint, nor do I find bourbon objectionable.

There were thousands of empty julep glasses in the grandstand at day’s end. A lot of unfinished juleps were seen, too.

But what about, you know, the race?

The Derby is one of 14 races during the day. The first is at 10:30 a.m. The Derby was the 12th race, at 6:50 p.m. Two words: Long day. Two words: Fun day. Everyone seemed to be in a great mood. Making new friends was easy. Two words: Pace yourself. Whether in consuming or wagering.

Never again will I snort at those who bet on horses because of their names or the colors they wore. Guess who didn’t bet on either Big Gray Rocket or Gray Sky in the second race on a day in which the sun wasn’t shining bright on anyone’s Kentucky home? That would be me.

I swear to Secretariat, the top two finishers were Big Gray Rocket and Gray Sky.

On a day better suited for ducks than humans or horses, Funny Duck was a colt in the 10th race. Everyone who said “Standing water, Funny Duck, this is a can’t-miss,” surely laughed uproariously when their $2 bets to win paid them $81.40. I was in the vast majority who didn’t join in their joy.

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But I did somehow pick a couple winners over the afternoon and was about even at Derby time. As I was going to a betting window for the main event I overheard a young man telling his friend “It’s only a thousand bucks. I gotta bet it, right?”

That’s not a statement I have uttered, ever will utter, or will ever hear uttered while in my circle of friends. “I’ve got a coupon for that,” however, may be a different story.

I made my modest wager on the No. 2 horse, Free Drop Billy. The reason? It was owned by an Iowan, Dennis Albaugh of Ankeny. I had to stay true to Iowa, right?

OK, it was more like this: If the horse with the Iowa tie had won and I didn’t get to share in the glory, the ecstasy, and especially the cash, I’d have been disgusted with myself even more than usual. Since the horse went off at 48-to-1, I was dreaming of floating out of Louisville with beaucoup bucks.

And I’d only had one swig of julep over eight hours at the track.

Alas, mud-coated Billy finished 16th. But I didn’t get wet, thoroughly enjoyed being among the Thoroughbreds and a true American spectacle, and somehow avoided spilling anything minty on my new blazer. So I felt like I won.

Still, how did I not put two bucks on Funny Duck?

l Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.