Kentucky Derby to Melbourne Cup: A Hot Air Balloon Ride Away

Events / Travel
Former hot air balloon pilot Tom Brutscher worked at Churchill Downs during the Kentucky Derby. (Annise Montplaisir/America’s Best Racing)

Around 8 a.m. on Kentucky Derby day, Tom Brutscher could be found sitting near section 312 in the Churchill Downs grandstand, the part that frames the clubhouse turn. Gray coat, white collared shirt, red tie, and an employee badge.

From Brutscher’s vantage point, you can see the length of the stretch, the sun brightening the white finishing pole that Authentic would later gallop past as the 2020 Derby victor, and the empty stands that would never lose their empty feeling.

“My name is Tom, but everybody calls me Ticket Tom,” he said through his navy blue and white mask.

He got the nickname from a radio announcer, but it apparently stems from his love of sports. Brutscher says he’s been to nearly every major sporting event at least once, except for the Super Bowl and the Melbourne Cup.  

But he did not miss the Kentucky Derby in 2020, somewhere around the 38th he has attended.

“I can remember Dust Commander [in 1970] was the first one. Then I brought my wife to see Secretariat [in 1973], that was a pretty special one. We’ve had some pretty good horses in the last 10 years. California Chrome and Justify, some of the horses who came from the West Coast showed they were really good horses.”

“Having no fans, I don’t like it,” Brutscher says. “The fans are what make Derby.”

Despite the downsized crowd – an imperative measure to maintain the safety of the Louisville community in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic – Brutscher recognizes that just being there is something to be thankful for.

“To be here and actually see it … several of my friends posted stuff on Facebook yesterday [about the Kentucky Oaks] and it was like, wow, I was here to see it. I got to take it all in. The Oaks was a great race, and maybe 200 of us saw it. Usually it’s 200,000, and yesterday was 200. For me it was still special. It was still the Kentucky Oaks. It was still good horses.”

Describing himself as a Louisville kid who grew up in the shadow of the track, his history with the Kentucky Derby spans several distinct experiences. Brutscher has driven limos for Derby parties, watched as a fan, and even piloted a hot air balloon over the track.

He explained that Louisville has one of the largest hot air balloon pilot communities in the U.S. after Albuquerque, N.M., which is famously known for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Celebrations leading up to a typical Kentucky Derby would be intertwined with the hot air balloon community, with the Great BalloonFest and Great Balloon Race.

This facilitated Brutscher’s segue into flying hot air balloons, which he did for more than  20 years. He started as a “chaser,” which entails tracking a balloon that is in flight, aiding with the landing, and packing up the equipment.

“In 1978, I chased a guy who said I needed to join a team tomorrow. He said ‘I’ve never had someone the whole world wide who chased me from where I launched with no radio and no contact with me and was there when I landed’. I just have geography in my head. I started chasing in the 70s and then started flying in 1998. And then I flew 1998 until 2014.”

It was the World Hot Air Balloon Championships that brought Brutscher to Mildura, Australia, in 2004. Mildura is in the state of Victoria, around six hours from Melbourne. A passion for sport and horse racing is engrained in Australian culture. So it was no surprise when Brutscher met a track bookie in Mildura who got him hooked on another one of the world’s most famous horse races – the Melbourne Cup.

“First Tuesday in November, I stop everything and watch the Melbourne Cup. I’ve got friends in Sydney, so we always hook up. Even through the time zone difference, I just structure everything that’s going on there so I can watch it here. So I’m awake at 11:30 p.m. and up all night celebrating the Melbourne Cup.”

Brutscher is curious to see what transpires with fans at this year’s event, which will take place at Flemington Racecourse on Nov. 3. The Melbourne Cup has its differences from the Kentucky Derby – run on turf at two miles for horses 3 and older – but shares similarities in how it is embraced by the community, the jubilant atmosphere, and attracting around 120,000 people to the track.

“You don’t realize that the whole world stops that day down there in the Southern Hemisphere as they do the Melbourne Cup. Nobody here gets into it, but it’s a lot like the Kentucky Derby.

“I’ve never been to Flemington, but I wish it would catch on here,” he adds, surmising that November basketball season in Kentucky takes priority when it comes to people’s attention.

Regardless of the global pandemic's effect on attendance, when the starting gates (known as barriers in Australia) open for this year’s Melbourne Cup, Brutscher’s experience will be the same – awake at 1 a.m., watching from Louisville, Ky.

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