Fred Stair (yellow jacket) with a group of friends celebrating Kentucky Derby Day. Photos by Julie June Stewart.
It is a glorious sight. Recreational vehicles parked side by side; flags snapping in the wind; breakfast is on and people are laughing. There is the smell of bacon and sausages wafting in the wind and the sizzle of pancakes cooking in heavy, cast-iron skillets. It seems perfectly natural that breakfast is accompanied by a beer. On Kentucky Derby morning, months of planning comes together as friends and family gather in Fred Stair’s parking lot within the shadow of Churchill Downs.
Fred grew up two blocks from Churchill Downs. He started off as a kid selling at Pepsi stands outside the track. His mom, Laura Bland Stair, was the one who had the idea to start the parking lot. She was known as the “General.”
It’s still a family business that includes Fred’s son Kyle and grandson Kyle Jr. Most of Fred’s business is returnees, and it is apparent that this is a small city where most folks know each other. Fred is a Jimmy Buffet fan and named his lot “Captain’s Derby lot” after Buffet’s song “The Captain and the Kid.” Every year, Fred brings in entertainment for his visitors with the always-popular musician Scot Kirby from Key West.
Five sportylooking Freedom Express (Coachman) trailers are parked side by side with an array of folding tables and chairs in front of them. It is Beth Ryan’s 50th birthday and 25 of her friends from Chicago have gathered to celebrate in style. Beth had just finished a TV interview (complete with the reporter singing her Happy Birthday!) and her friends were ready for breakfast. They rolled in on Thursday. Today’s menu included ribs and sausage. On Oaks day, they had tenderloin and King Crab legs and laughed when they said, “We are just like everybody else!” I doubted that very much by looking at the extent of their setup.
BETH RYAN AND HER FRIENDS CELEBRATE HER BIRTHDAY ON KENTUCKY DERBY DAY
Next door at the “Down the Stretch Lounge,” Frank “The Tank” Ortiz from Austin, Texas was sporting a sports jacket and a horse-head mask while straddling a western saddle and settling in to enjoy a brew. He is part of the first ever (and now annual) Steve Rau Parma trip “celebrating life.” It is Steve’s first time with his buddies in four years after serving two deployments overseas. The guys were playing bean-bag toss. It was relaxed and happy. Steve is moving to Seattle to serve at Ft. Lewis. The guys were just so happy to be together, like playful puppies in the sun.
Around the corner was a group of 13 guys from New York setting up breakfast. I chatted with them while they munched on freshly toasted bagels. They were celebrating a bachelor party, and in this early hour the bachelor was nowhere to be found. But they had their bar all set up and were getting ready for a very busy Derby afternoon.
With music pulsing from a vintage stereo, the next group of eight hails from Dayton, Ohio, Lexington, Ky., Boston, Mass. and Pennsylvania. Pancakes were sizzling in the skillet and they were celebrating their fifth year of friendship at the Derby. Friday was their “culinary day” when they cooked pork shoulder on the smoker. Today, they were going to be more practical with brats and burgers. They are a combination of college and high school friends and relatives and proudly proclaimed themselves as the “Dance With Fate” gang saying, “we dance with fate every day!” But they couldn’t agree on a horse. The Boston guy proudly supports Wicked Strong, while another said it has to be Wildcat Red.
THE DANCE WITH FATE GANG
Fred Stair’s path has been interesting. He is an attorney who lives in the Florida Panhandle and is getting ready to move to Key West. Yet for more than 50 years, his other “home” has been 75 yards from Churchill Downs main entrance the first week of May. He provides a safe and entertaining haven for his customers who enhance their Derby visits with special-occasion parties.
In today’s fast-paced world, it is wonderful to pull up an RV, put the bacon on and enjoy good times with friends. One just has to look into the eyes of Steve Rau to understand how important this is after two tours of duty overseas. Fred knows. Steve knows. The Derby is about more than the fastest 3-year-old colt on the first Saturday of May. It is about the celebration of friendship and a time to be together. A time to cheer, laugh and crack each other up … to enjoy beer, brats and burgers. And, to make the memories that will last a lifetime.