A Colorful Derby Day at Churchill Downs

Events / Travel
Fans dressed in classic Derby attire on May 6. (Julie June Stewart photo)

There is something so joyful about the entrances at Churchill Downs during the Derby. It is a veritable sea of humanity. Once they get through security, they practically burst onto the scene resembling joyous foals let loose to play. There is a lightness in the air. There are the happy bouncy types who high-five their friends and immediately surge forward with a spring in their step and a smile as wide as Churchill Downs’ stretch. There are the fashion-forward ones who make sure they are photo-perfect, making quick adjustments to their pretty hats. There are groups of fedora-clad young men with their pre-marked programs in hand hustling to get their first mint julep of the day. You will hear two exuberant greetings: “Happy Derby day!” or “Who do you like?” 

Yellow fascinator perfection. (Julie June Stewart photo)

A couple stepped through and stopped as they took their first look at the inside of Churchill Downs. All around them was the whirl of humanity dressed in Derby finery. Every color combination was present and perfect! Hot pinks and papaya orange; chartreuse and cream; cerulean blue and chartreuse yellow.  The world was abounding with fancy flowers, fedoras and feathers. Stilettos, boots and sandals. Cigars, mint juleps, lilies and roses. The couple took another two steps and were holding hands. They glanced at each other with a smile that spoke volumes. It was the look that two people can give when no words are necessary. That split second of intimate eye contact said it all. Their eyes shared a moment of sheer joy. What was their story? Was this a bucket list moment?  Was this a yearly pilgrimage? Were they local or from afar? One thing was for certain. The look said, “WE MADE IT TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY!” As with the thousands before and after them, the same joyful look was repeated by a host of happy attendees as they streamed into Churchill Downs. 

The massive structure quickly absorbs the crowd. As each hour passes, more and more people arrive for the First Saturday in May. They came in the rain and cold and were blessed with glimpses of the sun.  They sipped their mint juleps and gave thanks they were in Kentucky. 

They came prepared for the rain. Rubber barn boots, often in floral prints, accompanied dresses. Plastic ponchos in all colors and plastic hat covers were worn by the practical. Where in the world did so many people find umbrella hats? For those who knew they were going to be inside, it was as normal as Derby finery could be. Of course bigger is better, especially for hats with feathers that frame the face. Men sported all types of tongue-in-cheek suits in loud and vibrant prints. They were worn in a wild kaleidoscope of patterns including pink flamingos and palm trees. There were suits in red, white and blue or the always fashionable print of dollar bills for luck! Toy horses were the adornment of choice for many hats and hearts.

For the ladies, hat choices were stunning. Bright yellow feathers dancing a tarantella in the wind. Sometimes it was as simple as a straw boater or the ensemble from Audrey Hepburn’s iconic “My Fair Lady” dress at Ascot. As for the bold, a short dress is still flirty even when it’s worn underneath a plastic poncho, as the fashionable strutted their stuff with their stilettos making a sharp clicking sound on the bricks accompanied by peals of merriment.

Even when it poured rain, innovation abounded. One box on the finish line kept a clear plastic tarp over their heads for hours. All you could see was the shape of four people underneath and the peaks of their heads. Above the tunnel, a group somehow managed to find a broom that they used to prop up their plastic tarp making a perfect tent to sit under as they watched the undercard races.

An improvised tent in the grandstand. (Julie June Stewart photo)

Of course the sun made appearances. It teased the crowd as it came and went during the day. The crowds would surge under the grandstands when it rained but return when it slowed to a sprinkle. This is their Derby weekend. People plan all year where they are going to sit, what they are going to wear and who they are going to be with. And they certainly do not let the weather interfere with the joy of their weekend! 

From the moment they enter, time quickly passes by as do the traditions of the day. Harry Connick Jr sang the national anthem and the crowd stood respectably. There was the arrival of the roses and the trophies to the winner’s circle. The undercard races zip by as joyous groups enter the winner’s circle for their photo on this historic day.

Suddenly the track announcer states that the walkover has begun. Heads turn as the crowds strain to see the horses. At first, it’s easy to see the first group of horses. Their coats gleam and shine in the sun. Classic Empire emerges first ahead of the throng and looks impressive. State of Honor follows with his large ears perked forward and is calm between his handlers. Battle of Midway and Hence are easy to spot as they are ahead of the crowd. Their manes are tightly braided and look like little round knobs on their neck. Sonneteer’s groom has a tight hold on his shank. Lookin At Lee looks very relaxed. 

Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer walks swiftly by, alone with black sunglasses on. Suddenly it’s impossible to see the horses. There are throngs of people on the track. You can catch a glimpse of Norm and Mark Casse; Joe Sharp and Rosie Napravnik with Girvin; Todd Pletcher with his contenders and a joyful Jerry Moss follows Gormley. Groom Daniel Robles walks by with Irap. He looks straight forward with a very tight grip on his horse. It seems to be nothing but people. Somewhere out there are the horses.  You might see an ear or an eye but it’s a people parade now making their way to the paddock.

Classic Empire during the walkover. (Julie June Stewart photo)

It’s a jubilant group filled with glee and hope. At this moment, any of the 20 horses could win the Derby. Hope is contagious. The sun has come out, as it always seems to for the Kentucky Derby. Hundreds and hundreds of people walk by. Some have tried to wear plastic bags on their dress shoes but the muddy track has overwhelmed the attempt. Doesn’t matter at all as they march forward with their horses. They may be slogging in the mud but their hearts are walking on air.

They slip through the tunnel and all eyes are on the Churchill Downs jumbotron known as “The Big Board.” The crowd snaps to attention as bugler Steve Buttleman steps forward to play “Call to the Post.” Few know that he injured himself earlier in the week and ruptured his quadriceps tendon in his left leg. He is a trooper and still looks snappy in his uniform even if he is wearing a massive brace over his white pants. 

As the horses approach the track, the University of Louisville Marching Band strikes up “My Old Kentucky Home.” This is when you see people laugh, smile and cry all at the same time. With tears in their eyes, they hoist their mint juleps high in the air in memory of friends and family no longer by their side. They open their hearts in love to their fellow “Kentuckians for a day” as the crowd of more than 158,000 raises their voices. The crowd sings, “The sun shines bright in my old Kentucky Home,” and knows that they are now part of history themselves.  It’s the running of the 143rd Kentucky Derby and they are there to witness history.  It doesn’t matter about the weather. They are here and it’s time to let one’s heart dream!

In the post parade, the horses loomed in front of the photographers on the track. The jockeys’ silks are pristine and they are loaded with goggles in preparation for the muddy track. The horses are either extremely calm or jittery from the crowd. Some lean into their lead ponies for support while others walked professionally to the gate. When the signal is given, the photographers on the track drop down to the dirt so they do not impair the sightlines of the attendees behind them.

Their cameras are sighted on the starting gate and you hear the clicks as test photos are taken and cameras are adjusted. It’s hard to describe but in the final seconds before the race begins, sound seems to disappear. The entire crowd leans forward in anticipation. They only want to hear one thing: “And they’re off in the Kentucky Derby!”

Gormley and Irap in the mud. (Julie June Stewart photo)

The horses blaze by on the first pass. The crowd clamors as they cheer for their contenders. Mud and dirt seem to fly in all directions. It’s almost impossible to tell who is who as they churn around the track. All except one!  As John Velazquez and Always Dreaming come flying across the finish line, the crowd explodes in approval. They are pristine and it’s easy to see the yellow silks with blue diamonds. Playing to the TV cameras on him with smiles and thumbs up; Velazquez returns with Always Dreaming and makes their way across the turf track to the Derby winner’s circle. Now draped in roses, it’s impossible to see them through the crowd except on the Big Board towering above them. Always Dreaming glistens with sweat and takes the hubbub calmly.

The Pletcher barn is ecstatic and Isobel Escobar stops briefly to show off Always Dreaming’s saddle cloth to the photographers. A woman stops at the turf gate and offers anyone $100 if they will carry her across the muddy track so she doesn’t ruin her shoes. Always Dreaming heads back to the barn and exercise rider Nick Bush is high fiving everyone in sight while laughing with joy. The connections finish their TV interviews and head to the press room. Trainer Todd Pletcher was contemplative as he watched the race unfold during the replay. This is Todd Pletcher’s second Derby win and his first with his longtime first-call jockey John Velazquez. This meant a lot to them and you could see their emotion when they finally had the time to sit next to each other. The smile and look shared between them?  Priceless and full of emotion.

There is nothing in the world like the Kentucky Derby. It’s a moment in time when you can allow your heart to dream. It’s a moment in time when you honor the history of those who raced in the past and celebrate those who run for the roses. When the winner walks past you wearing a garland of roses, it is a jaw-dropping moment. One that is recorded in racing history through books, paintings and videos. Always Dreaming is now part of Kentucky Derby history.  It is a deeply satisfying Derby won by a horse with a perfect name. It will be a day when people can proudly claim “I was there!” Perhaps they will share a look with a friend and nod appreciatively. It was worth dealing with the rain and the crowds. For as we have seen time and time again, the sun will shine on Derby day and dreams do come true.

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