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The Peculiar, Complicated, Blissful Rituals of the Kentucky Derby

“I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentrya pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture,” wrote Hunter S. Thompson in 1970 of the quintessential Kentucky Derby goer; the character he and his partner-in-crime, illustrator Ralph Steadman, had hoped to find but instead became, at the tracks in Louisville, Kentucky.

I am fundamentally conflicted about Derby Day. I was born in Kentucky and my childhood landmark for spring was the Derby party, thrown by my parents or my parents’ friends. I got to wear a pretty dress and run around on a green lawn after months of slushy winter. I’d overeat deviled eggs or Benedictine or whatever else was available and watch the adults get tipsy. (Actually, that last part isn’t true: I don’t think I paid any attention to the inebriation level of the grown-ups. Point is, at Derby, you drink.) But Derby, like most things, also has a darker side.

The first Saturday in May marked the 140th “Run for the Roses,” as the Kentucky Derby has always been known. The name refers to the blanket of 554 roses draped over the winning horse and is just one of the many atavistic traditions accompanying this rite of spring. What began in 1875 as (reputedly) a distraction for the bummed, post-Civil War masses has continued into the 21st century as the longest-running sporting event in the United States.

The first Derby took place via the instigations of one Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. (grandson of the “Clark” in Lewis and Clark) after he toured—and fell in love with—the racing culture of Europe. The race features 3-year old thoroughbred horses and colorfully clad, miniscule jockeys. The run itself lasts a total of two minutes; it is the shortest, greatest, and most expensive two minutes of sports we know.

The traditions surrounding Derby are probably the reasons the race has held out so long, despite a history mixed with scandal (animal abuse, anorexic jockeys). In this dependence on ritual it’s not terribly different from any other sport.

Ladies, of course, wear lavish hats and men are equally dressed up in seersucker suits or suspenders; everyone drinks lots of mint juleps (hopefully in the sunshine) before the two minutes of racing, which is appropriately followed by more mint juleps. In Kentucky there are two weeks of events leading up to Derby Day (like Thunder Over Louisville, which features an airshow and an enormous quantity of fireworks), and for much of the week, bars will stay open until 6am as the state envelops the Derby tourists.

In New York City, the largest Kentucky Derby party in all five boroughs is the Brooklyn Derby, the brainchild of Jessi Arrington, her husband Creighton Mershon, and their friends Casson Rosenblatt and Josh Stewart. It is an event in which you get to play dress-up and day drink; things I whole-heartedly endorse. As is so often the case in our DIY town, Brooklyn Derby originated in an apartment, but has swelled to 500-some revelers over the last 11 years: they now take over Greenwood Park in South Slope, commandeering bocce courts for corn hole, staging bluegrass and jazz bands for the crowd’s entertainment, and now providing a DIY hat-making station, sponsored by Etsy. (And, if you’d rather not do the work yourself, local haberdasheries always have an opulent array of custom-made Derby hats. Goorin Bros printed a catalog this year exclusively for their Derby line. “Some people will show up in their Derby Day outfits,” said Nicky Cutler, the manager at Goorin Bros’ Park Slope location. “Other people might bring pictures, and we can help design their hat based on that.”)

Wearing a hat to the Kentucky Derby is believed to bring good luck, and styles range from the elegant southern-belle variety often found in Churchill Downs’ “Millionaire’s Row” (wide brims, fancy feathers) to the zany looks found in the Infield. This appropriately named area is the field in the center of the track and has more of a festival vibe: roughly 80,000 revelers pack into the Infield, less to catch a glimpse of the race and more to catch a good buzz. It is, according to the Kentucky Derby’s official site, “an experience of acceptable excess and is forgivably risqué—a place where you overeat, overspend and over flirt.” (For your own Derby party, suggests the website, you can sidestep the traditional fuss and create an “Infield theme” with these “infield elements: BBQ, flip flops, beaded necklaces, Slip N Slide, beer pong and corn hole.”)

But of course it’s “Millionaire’s Row” that boasts the best seats in the house—both for watching the race and watching the rich and famous. There is a long-running culture of extravagance and excess surrounding horse racing: think, for example, a $1,000 Mint Julep made with Arctic Circle ice and Moroccan mint, auctioned off in a 24-carat gold-plated cup.

Peel back money’s influence on all things Derby and you’ll often find a controversy. For example, take Calumet, one of the wealthiest and well-known thoroughbred farms in the bluegrass state. No other stable has harvested winning stallions quite like Calumet—the farm has a record of breeding Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown winners—and it was one such stallion, Alydar, whose unexpected death began investigations into the farm’s owner.

Alydar, a chestnut stallion, was coveted not only for his impressive runs at the Derby and Triple Crown (here is a video of Alydar racing to the finish in a dead heat in 1978; he’s magnificent) but also for the many successful racers he sired. In 1980, J.T. Lundy, the husband of the heir to Calumet, assumed operations of the farm and began racking up millions of dollars in bad loans. A decade later, the farm was going bankrupt, and Alydar, whose insurance policy was worth $36 million, was euthanized after a suspicious leg injury. According to Skip Hollandsworth, an assistant U.S. attorney at the time, the farm’s night watchmen was told to take a night off; that evening, Alydar suffered a shattered leg, allegedly by kicking a roller on his stable door.

Casting further doubt onto the “accidental” circumstances, an engineer testified that “the force needed to break the roller was at least three times what any horse could deliver in a single kick.” Also, the broken pieces that were found inside the stable apparently did not match up. The engineer grimly speculated that Alydar’s hind leg had been broken by tying a rope to it that was attached to a truck on the other end. Either way, Alydar was euthanized.

Horse racing is, by some standards, more ethical than other animal-centric sports, but it is certainly under scrutiny. Just months before this year’s running, PETA accused two trainers of cruelty to horses after an undercover investigation revealed how widespread practices like shock-wave therapy and heavy medication are. The New York Times quoted Terry Finley, managing partner of West Point Thoroughbreds, saying “Anyone in our business who doesn’t tell you they are conflicted isn’t telling the truth.”

New legislation meant to help right some of the wrongs is in the works, but still, it’s a real shame that the sport is tainted by unethical pricks. Kentucky is a state of verdant pastures and hillsides: horses have a majestic hold on most Kentuckians’ imagination, and Derby is a rite of spring not to be missed, even if it’s just a barbecue in your neighbor’s backyard. Derby parties can have the feel of a “grown-up children’s party,” as Anne Ditmar, a previous Brooklyn Derby guest, phrased it.

In fact, the giddiness of Brooklyn Derby’s past attendees was infectious, and in talking to them, I began to remember why I had loved the First Saturday in May so much to begin with. It’s the basic human compulsion to dress up and get together. It’s the first time people have a chance to air out those body parts that have been ossifying under coats all winter, and people truly dress to the nines.

And of course, there are the juleps. According to the Derby’s site, each year “almost 120,000 mint juleps are served over the two-day period of the Kentucky Oaks [the day before] and the Kentucky Derby.” That’s 10,000 bottles of Early Times, the Derby’s longtime partner, along with 1,000 pounds of fresh mint and 60,000 pounds of ice. Have a drink and make a bet: whether you’ve been studiously surveying the horses all season or (much more likely) if you just go by look or name or favorite jockey colors, it’s tradition.

I, like all Derby fans, end up deferring to this. The bliss of Derby Day is embracing the fuss that surrounds the oldest two minutes in sports. Some damn-fine people watching coupled with a few mint juleps and some sunshine? That’s a Saturday I’m okay with. It’s springtime, and we could all use a reason to celebrate.

Arianne Wack is a freelancer and radio fiend living in Brooklyn. She studied the finer arts as an undergrad but wound up working in public radio. You can find her work at The Millions, Hyperalleric, Radiolab and Salon. She isn’t a a big tweeter but you can find her there, too. 

Brooklyn Derby photo from Steve McFarland


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