Sunday, May 02, 2004

More Derby of yore blog.

Notes on the 1987 Kentucky Derby, continued.

When the Derby was over, we heard on the radio that several arrests had been made that the event. Not for drunkenness & disorderly conduct, or fighting, or drug possession, but for "excessive nudity," a phrase that made me wonder when nudity becomes excessive.

After my walk around the infield, I returned to base camp I discovered that all of NS's picks in the fifth had won -- but he'd had no time to place the bets! Grumble, grumble. We learned later, from an experienced bettor who happened to be standing ahead of us in the betting line, that that was a terrible omen for the rest of the day's bets. And so it proved to be.

BF and NS got the idea that they wanted to go behind the grandstand. BF wanted some shade. NS said (to me) that he wanted a look at the finely dressed women there, the Derby being a dress-up occasion for the box-seat classes. In fact, he wanted to go into the high-ticket sections, but BF and I balked at the idea, pleading poverty. NS then said that if he won enough in the next race, he'd buy our way in. Fair enough, we said. He started plotting his strategy on the seventh. We’d missed the sixth while we navigated the human eddies and tides in the area of the grandstand, nearly getting separated but ultimately finding the essentials of a water fountain (and later a beer vendor), and a place to sit.

We all bet on the seventh. I bet not by racing form, but by the names of the horses. NS went with hard-core racing form data. I don't know how BF made her decisions. We all lost.

But this time I wanted to find MA [a woman I'd known at Vanderbilt, then living in Louisville, and whom I hadn't seen since the previous Derby]. I'd talked to her on the phone the week before, but we hadn't been definite about a meeting place. She said she'd be in about the same place as last year, near the Kentucky flag.

We placed our bets on the Derby (the eighth race) and headed back to the infield. I explained to my companions that I was looking for someone, and I think they had the impression I was looking for a pea in the Grand Canyon, but it wasn't that way. MA and her crew were in almost exactly the same spot as the year before, forming one of the many, many clusters of people on the infield. Two of MA’s sisters were there, and so was our old friend CS, but MA's husband was off somewhere else. Everybody seemed surprised that I'd actually made it.

NS and BF went to watch the Derby by the edge of the track, but MA and I spent the time just before and during the great race in a pleasant little bubble of conversation. It's a strange moment in time, the running of the Derby, not quite like any other. Trumpets blow and the announcer says this is the so-and-so running of the Kentucky Derby! The crowd yells out its approval, and everything just hangs until the bell rings. A century and more of custom has designated the eighth race on the first Saturday of May at Churchill Downs as the race. The crowd isn't exactly quiet during the running, but murmuring with attention -- this is probably the most united the spectators will be the whole day, from the cheap spots in the infield to the box seats that have passed down through a single family for three or four generations.

Then it was over. We'd lost our bets. There's a ninth and tenth race, so the crowd doesn't jam the exits quite the way it does at other sporting events or concerts, but the outflow is steady. My visit with MA was much too short, because we had to join the exodus; NB had to work the next morning in Chicago. Leaving the city was surprising easy, and the only event of note en route back was a big damn thunderstorm outside Indy, when I was at the wheel.


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