Tattooed Drunk Diamond-Dusted Kentucky Derby Fan

Churchill Downs is like no other sports event, considering sports are barely involved. Our writer attended her first Derby last year with a family of committed fans and survived to tell the tale.

Mr. Derby had been lifting up his pant leg all day at the track in what his wife, C.C., called “The Reveal.” Now he wore a pair of khaki shorts on his back porch showing off the prize in its full glory, and there it was, a couple inches high on his right calf muscle—a horseshoe with a rose inked inside, recently tattooed.

“I just wanted to freak out all these young people here who are wimps who don’t have any tattoos,” Mr. Derby explained, himself toeing 60. “Like my son, who’s a wimp and doesn’t have any tattoos, and like my daughter, who’s a wimp and doesn’t have any tattoos.”

He turned on his small audience facing the Ohio River that frames his backyard on the far northern edge of Kentucky. A half-dozen of us were gaping at him, listening in deference to this man who actually owned a silk vest hand-painted with racehorses, whose love of the first Saturday in May—and generosity with every sleeping surface in his house—had brought us to Kentucky.

“Do any of you have tattoos?” he asked.

All of us would be called wimps repeatedly over the weekend for various crimes: going to bed early, sleeping in late, passing on the next mint julep, passing out on the party bus.

Derby weekend with the locals is only for the hardy of heart and stomach. Here, the most famous horse race in the world is a weeklong celebration, a family reunion, an annual opportunity—with the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home”—to cry. It is The Event around which the entire annual calendar settles, the first weekend of May for which the house is cleaned, the catered appetizers ordered, the DJ booked, the dog driven to the kennel.

It is, as I learned, a sporting event that has very little to do with sports.

This is one Derby phenomenon that is hard to appreciate on television: There are no children at Churchill Downs.My Derby benefactor, Mr. Derby’s tattoo-less son Brett, had flown back from his home in France for the occasion. He would not do the same for Christmas. His buddy James Joyce had gone to the track straight Thursday morning off a redeye from Seattle. Sister Mary had come up from Florida, Jackie and Frank down from Cleveland. Kellie, my dear Here Hold This Friend (you cannot scribble notes and sip a mint julep at the same time, and I was never without a mint julep) flew from Connecticut.

There were also neighbors, dates, old friends, C.C.’s college roommate from 40 years ago—and everyone would fit, through an elaborate scheme of rotation and evasion, in a Churchill Downs box built for six.

“Now, there is only one Derby rule,” Mr. Derby preached that first night, on the eve of the Kentucky Oaks. (Mr. Derby is known the other 51 weeks of the year as stock broker Al.) Everyone saw the punchline coming, but repeating it each year is an essential opening salvo to the Kentucky Derby ritual.

“There are no rules!”

Well, maybe this one: “Van leaves at 10:30 tomorrow.”


* * *

The van, packed with 15 Oaks-goers, a cooler of Bud Light, and a box of sandwiches, made an abrupt stop not 10 minutes from the Corbin house Friday morning. It is another tradition, the visit of the most curious home in the neighborhood. A solid-marble gazebo and fountain of a Greek goddess peeked from the side yard. Every year, there is always some unexpected addition—new furs on the living room floor or a flat-screen TV on the back portico.

“Diamond dust!” someone yelled. “They’ve added diamond dust to the outside of the house!”

The place sparkled in the Kentucky morning sun. Inside, owner Dan was waiting to make Bloody Mary’s, served in “Talk Derby to Me” plastic cups, for everyone in the van. Saturday, he would do the same for twice as many people. Both mornings we would disembark, drink Dan’s liquor, exchange awkward big-hat hugs, re-board, and drive off to the track. Dan stood from his front door waving and never came with us; we assumed he watched the races on TV.

Louisville and the Derby are inseparable. Sure, the Preakness and the Belmont are held in the same towns years after year, but who can name them?In the van on Friday to the track, Brett explained that for years growing up he’d had no idea about the vodka, the parties, the general mayhem of middle-aged adults acting like college students. As part of his parents’ Derby routine, on Friday the dog would go to the kennel, and Brett and his sister Shannon would be dropped off at the local YMCA, where a bus waited to take Louisville children to a nearby summer camp for the weekend.

This is one Derby phenomenon that is hard to appreciate on television: There are no children at Churchill Downs. They’re absent even from the better-behaved boxes. I had assumed the Derby was for families.

“Oh God no,” Jackie said. “You don’t want your kids around this. It’s for adults.”

Which helped explain the joy on so many faces at the Corbins’ house. The Derby isn’t just a three-day party, it’s a three-day adults-only party.

Friday at the track was just the set-up, a lay-of-the-land day in preparation for the annual Derby-eve Corbin Party. We left the track in the late afternoon before the actual running of the Oaks—the main event of Friday’s fillies-only prequel to the Derby—so our hosts could beat the traffic back to their own bash. In the van, the driver turned up “Tiny Dancer.” We slurred along as best we could, everyone except for one family friend, a neighbor passed out against a window in the second aisle.

The next morning, her wide-brimmed black hat—bought by C.C. three years earlier in Paris and worn by a different guest to Derby festivities every year since—would turn up in the bushes behind the Corbin house, wet from the overnight rain and what looked like the previous day’s mint juleps. Someone mercifully put it out to pasture in the trash—“where all black hats go,” C.C. eulogized solemnly.


* * *

The Kentucky Derby has been hosted in the same spot since 1875. Unlike the fickle playoffs of every major American sports league, it’s an event more synonymous with its place than even its greatest victors, Secretariat or Seattle Slew or Barbaro. Louisville and the Derby are inseparable, the latter the birthright of anyone who lives there. Sure, the Preakness and the Belmont, the other two legs of the thoroughbred Triple Crown, are held in the same towns years after year, but who can name them?

The race has grown from hosting a few-thousand well-to-do Kentuckians to anyone who wants a general-admission ticket—each guaranteeing no better than a sliver of sightline of the one-and-a-quarter mile track. By definition of the shape and size of the race, there’s no such thing as a good seat viewing the whole thing, certainly not as good as you get on your TV at home. Still, 157,000 people showed up last year to watch something they couldn’t really see.

No one ever put down a beer Friday night in Virginia and decided that moment to head out for an affordable World Series in St. Louis 12 hours later.Jackie from Cleveland and another family friend, Beeb, were in the kitchen re-telling their My First Derby stories. Beeb’s grandfather bought his box back in 1932, and Beeb has been to nearly every race for more than 35 years, save the one spring he was in Vietnam.

Once, he and his college buddies decided on Derby Eve to drive overnight down from Massachusetts to make the race. From the infamously wild infield, he spied his parents sitting in their box, unaware that he had slipped back from college for the weekend to party.

“To this day,” he said, “I never told them.”

“There’s just nothing like it,” Beeb’s wife, Bonnie, said. “At the Super Bowl, the teams change, and the fans change. But the Derby is always the same.”

It is, in fact, the only comparable major sports event accessible to all. Anyone who can afford a $30 infield ticket can walk up on race day and head straight inside. And because of that, the Derby has spawned an entire community of near-religious adherents with stories about the 40 straight years they’ve been, or the time 40 years ago they decided to go last-minute.

No one ever says, on the other hand, “Oh, I’ve been to the last 40 Super Bowls.” No one ever put down a beer Friday night in Virginia and decided that moment to head out for an affordable World Series in St. Louis 12 hours later.


* * *

The actual Derby race on Saturday is so short, only two minutes long, a seismic celebration in preparation seemed called for; so much adrenaline would be released in those two minutes, an equal buildup was necessary to keep the day in balance.

“These people in Paris think I’m going back to the States to watch a two-minute horse race,” Brett said, sitting, finally, in the third-floor box on the home stretch at Churchill Downs on Derby Day.

Poor saps, they had no idea.

“I’m stuttering it’s so hard to explain,” Jackie said. “It’s not about a two-minute horse race.”

After the late party the night before, we’d been up early, strutting one at a time through a kitchen fashion show in high heels and low necklines, hundred-dollar hats coordinated with dress sashes and blazers of navy-blue seersucker that would be moth-balled the rest of the year. No one—and this was among the most important rules of all—wore the slightest hint of a hangover, but we did make another stop for bloody mary’s on the way to the fairgrounds, this time arriving in a full-length, 46-seat charter bus Mr. Derby had rented for the day. He would, in the weekend’s most impressive feat, produce a parking permit for the thing once we arrived at Churchill Downs.

Inside the track, the group divided, wandered off in clusters, reappeared, passed by to collect betting tips, then broke off and reappeared again. By 5:30 p.m., everyone was back, the chairs were folded, and the Corbin box went standing-room only. We sang “My Old Kentucky Home,” with special dispensation for those who’d been granted local status only earlier that day.

The race started, and then it was over.

I made my first-ever Derby winnings on a 10-dollar bet that No. 5 Eight Belles, the only filly in the race and the first in nine years, would place. She came in second. Minutes later, a clerk at the wagering counter was handing me three singles and a pale pink, never-before-crumpled fifty-dollar bill.

That was right about the time, it later turned out, that Eight Belles was being euthanized on the track after breaking both of her front ankles crossing the finish line. Like Eight Belles’ clueless trainer, it took most of us inside Churchill Downs a while to realize what had happened.

The track P.A. announcer doesn’t broadcast such news, perhaps out of fear that people would stop betting.

Back on the party bus, I felt bad for profiting off a dead horse. Mr. Derby was outside producing a vast tailgate from the bowels of the charter. Chas, another friend of the tattoo-less Brett’s who’d been introduced to me as our meteorologist (for you should always bring your own to the Derby), wandered down the aisle. He was concerned his grandparents were running out of Kentucky Derbies to see. He’d been by their house earlier that morning and had promised his grandfather he would place a bet on Big Brown. Big Brown won by nearly five lengths out of the 20th post position.

“So how much did you win?”

“About 60 dollars,” Chas said, pulling the winning ticket from his pocket.

“Aren’t they supposed to take that when they give you your winnings?” I asked.

“I didn’t cash it. I’m giving it to my grandfather.”

“So he can cash it?”

“So he can have the winning ticket. My grandfather picked the winner of the Kentucky Derby!”

“You’re not going to get the money?”

“It’s worth more like this,” he said.

I watched him tuck the ticket back into his pocket.

I wandered off the bus and bumped into Brett’s brother-in-law. I told him I didn’t know what to do about my sad ending to a story that was, primarily, about people partying.

“It’s not a sad ending,” he insisted, gesturing toward the tailgate where Mr. Derby was handing off cans of Bud Light to a half-dozen strangers who had wandered by our party bus and gotten sucked into its orbit. “Because,” he said, “the race is over and the party is still going on.”

The part about the dead horse was sad, but the weekend wasn’t really about horses anyway.

Emily Badger is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area, where she writes about public policy, urbanism, and sustainability. She’s a contributing writer to Miller-McCune and The Atlantic Cities and has also written for GOOD, the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times. More by Emily Badger