The fight of the century may be going down in Vegas this weekend, but make no mistake about it. The first Saturday in May will forever belong to Churchill Downs. I dare you to try and argue that. Growing up, it was impossible not to notice the uniqueness that surrounds that particular horse race. The spring in my neighborhood always brought two things no matter what. First Communion Celebrations and the Kentucky Derby. It was a perfect combination for many of the competitive Catholics I grew up with. Families across America usually stop what they are doing, tune in as the jockeys start taking these gigantic creatures to the starting gate. By now everyone is surrounding a television someplace in the garage or living room all across the country. People say that the Derby is the most exciting two minutes in sports. Spend a Saturday at the track and find out.
I fell in love with the Kentucky Derby when I took a road trip to the Bluegrass state back in 2008. Three great friends of mine decided to do it only a few weeks before the Run for the Roses went down. Finding hotel rooms in Louisville or any place close to was basically not an option. Instead, my crew and I decided to stay in Cincinnati the night before and then drive the hour and a half to Churchill Downs in the morning. It saved us the big priced hotel rooms, and gave us the chance to checkout a pretty cool city the night before. All in all the drive from Buffalo to Cincinnati to the track was about 8 hours. You would think parking was a major issue at a sporting event of this magnitude but my friends and I were able use our stadium parking skills we acquired here in Buffalo and parked our car for only fifteen dollars in a local resident’s lot. The people were unbelievably welcoming and even allowed one of my friends to use their bathroom. Just getting to the race was an adventure in itself but walking up to the gate was an entirely different story.
There are two major misconceptions about the Derby. The first-the race you see on television at around 6:30PM ET isn’t the only race that goes down at the track that day. In fact there will be thirteen races throughout the day come Saturday making the entire day just a little more interesting. The second-you don’t have to be rich to get in. Don’t get me wrong. You will see lots of rich folks, but you most likely won’t be sitting near them. General admission to the biggest sporting event (usually) going on in the country that day is only sixty bucks. Sixty bucks and you are in with access to almost the entire facility minus the stables and the suites. It was actually only forty bucks when I had gone back in “08”. It was one of the biggest sporting events I had ever gone to and it only cost me two twenty dollar bills to walk in. You can’t do that at any other sporting event especially one that you know the whole world is watching. It certainly felt that way on that sunny afternoon as the crowd grew and grew all day long.
The weather brought out a crowd you had to see to believe. It was the second largest Derby of all time so I shared my first Derby with almost 158,000 people. It is something everyone who loves sports needs to do. It was like going to the Grotto in South Bend for the first time, but the only prayers you hear at Churchill Downs are for numbers. Knowing the lingo before you arrive at the track is a must if you plan on scoring too. Our luck started during the second race of the day and the hits kept on coming. Winning big at the 134th Run for the Roses wasn’t part of the plan but it was certainly welcomed. The experience had already been incredible and taking home some extra cash was the cherry on top. Only problem was that we had only been there for just over an hour and now we had plenty of time and money to checkout the entire show. Great problem to have.
Sitting in the grandstands or watching the race from your suite has to be incredible. Someday I will get there, but even if I do I will still take time to see what is going on in the Infield. That is where the party will always be at. It brings together a collection of food, booze, gambling, and good times like no other social event I have ever attended. Luckily, I was pointed towards Turn 3 after hitting on my first bet and proceeded to have an absolute blast. Radio stations had contests going on everywhere you looked as people young and old competed for tee shirts by determining who slid farther on the fan favorite Slip and Slide. Music of all genres played in the background as thousands of people celebrated this incredible day. The sun was out and people were pumped up for the grand finale. A major favorite was there to win that day and almost everyone wanted to see him lose.
A countdown took place in between each race throughout the day on the enormous score boards everywhere you looked. It was intense. Once the last race ended before the big race there was a huge push to make bets for almost an hour straight. I didn’t want to place a dime on that race though, and it wasn’t because of the lines. Truth is I just wanted to take it all in and watch how it all went down. The anxiety and intensity ballooned in a very short time as people became more and more excited for the horses to come to the gate. The talk of the week was of only one competitor that day. Big Brown was going off at 2-1 one and we knew our only chance at a real hit was with a Trifecta. In other words, pick the first three finishers in the correct order. A two dollar bet paid 3,445.60 that day. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen, but what did happen was incredible. Big Brown won by almost five lengths and did it coming out of the 20th gate. That hadn’t happen since 1929. It impressed the locals most because betting on that gate was usually considered a donation to the track. I was amazed as I watched, listened, and felt these majestic mountains of muscle cruise by me. The crowd roared as the champion made his way down the stretch to take his place in history, and was right there to see it all.
It came as no surprise to me that Big Brown’s jockey was decked out in the red, white, and blue that day. The Derby had its champion and America once again successfully depended on the excitement and tradition the Derby brings. So take a look at field today before you run out to OTB tomorrow to bet the big race. The fight might end up being the biggest of all time, but something about the Derby just makes it different than everything else.