A racetrack should smell masculine, like the heady aromas of bourbon and cigar smoke and barbeque wafting through the sweltering heat. Because the Kentucky Derby is roses and hospitality and beautiful hats, but there is also a masculinity and roughness about the event. There is a seediness to it, and a feeling of unrestrained joy in the air, too, mixing with the scent of all that tobacco and smoked pork. It’s an atmosphere full of possibilities.
Nowhere are these possibilities more palpable than in the paddock, where Vineyard Vines mixes with full-body tattoos, where cougars and fraternity boys are drawn by the prospect of a roasted bratwurst and the idea that maybe they’ll run into someone they knew in Catholic school. The best place to watch this glorious spectacle is from a balcony near the third floor clubhouse, which has a view of the entire paddock and is still close enough to the action to notice the specifics. A lady cop taking a drag off a Marlboro Light, a bookie who could not care less about the social aspects of the day, a drunk passed out on a bench near the tulips with a Daily Racing Form on his face: I’ve seen them all from the paddock balcony.
There is much to be said for being part of the paddock mélange, or descending into the depths of the infamous tunnel that takes Derbygoers under the racetrack and into the madness of the infield. I’ve never done a whole day in the infield, but I’m not above a quick spin through to see what’s happening there. It’s usually muddy and loud, and there is inevitably a girl on someone’s shoulders, surrounded by a hopeful group of college guys who want to see her bikini top come off. Sometimes it actually does. And that’s usually when I’m ready to head back to my seats.
I’ve said before that moving around is the key to Derby adventure, and it’s also key to seeing the most beautiful hats. It’s fun to try to recognize the ones from local boutiques, to pick out the ones that Dee’s Crafts might have done, and to see what dresses people pair with them. There is mostly a jovial atmosphere in their air, so groups are constantly befriending each other, bonding over similar tastes in hats or mutual friends. There is a constant shuffle, a need to go to the next place, to scout for mint juleps, go place a bet, or just go seeking adventure.
There are races all day, of course, but as the Derby approaches the anticipation builds. People want to get their bets in; odds are changing by the minute (there’s nothing worse than when the horse you liked five weeks ago becomes the favorite an hour before the race). Everyone’s stocking up on juleps, because no one wants to be without a mint julep when it’s time to sing My Old Kentucky Home. That would be unpatriotic.
And then the bell rings and they’re off. There are cheers, curses, and screams from the crowd, and in two minutes, one horse in the field will distinguish himself (or herself!) and will become a part of history. That horse’s name will sound just right when it joins the list of Derby winners. Local people will consider the horse a friend. We’ll cheer for it in the Preakness and Belmont and will cherish it beyond this one season of racing. Our children will see the horse’s name, along with winners from every other year, printed on the Derby glasses they drink their milk from every morning at breakfast. We’ll hope it does well in the breeding barn, (which means producing lots of winners), because we like to think that someday, in a few years, maybe we’ll pin our hopes on a colt or filly descended from that very horse. As Kentuckians, we know that these things are cyclical; we just have to pray the winner isn’t a gelding. I’m looking at you, Funny Side.