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May 3, 2007

From the outside looking infield: Face it, folks: Derby means more to us than those Churchill Downers

Many moons have phased in and out since I last walked the streets of Louisville, but the Ville is where my thoughts turn when Derby is around the corner.I have always known the race as a celebration of national-holiday magnitude. As a child I was groomed to appreciate the various pleasures of Derbytime, the zenith of a spirited season initiated by Thunder Over Louisville. Throughout my elementary school years, it was customary for children to be dismissed on the first Friday of May — naturally — for Oaks Day.Then I left the Highlands for the sands of the southeastern coast, and I realized this celebratory spirit is pretty much felt only by people in the Louisville area. Nonetheless, I hold the Derby in the highest regard, and so when the 133rd Run for the Roses approaches, I will adhere to my own Derby Day tradition: makeshift mint juleps, calls home to place bets, screaming at the TV.It’s not easy. On my first Derby removed, I sought out a green-thumbed neighbor to score a few fresh sprigs of mint. As I tore it from her garden, she asked: “Now, what’s that Derby, some sort of horse racing?”My jaw dropped in perfect astonishment. The entire universe seemed momentarily on tilt. I realized I was truly in foreign territory. I realized — oh, the tragedy — that this woman had reached middle age without ever attending a real Derby party. I quickly excused myself, tightly clutching the fragrant fruits of her labor.In the handful of Derbies that have followed, the South’s limited perception of our country’s oldest continuously held sporting event has become increasingly more evident. Take a former co-worker in an old dirty warehouse, a native with deep wrinkles in his weathered face. I once asked this ol’ surly bastard if he ever considered traveling to see the thoroughbred spectacle for himself.His response was quick, in his gruff southern drawl: “Now whud do I want with dat, ya reckon?”It’s been a sour epiphany, I tell ya, and I’ve virtually abandoned any attempt to recruit new Derby fanatics. In the South, at least, the Kentucky Derby is subtext at best. Kentucky is more known here for buckets of chicken. The Derby is Louisville. You’re either on that bus or off it.How bizarre, this country-fried indifference. I have indeed lost my Thunder; the Derby comes to me now with no opportunity to thrive off the electricity of Louisville, the palpable energy released by all Derby fans, instantly and simultaneously, as the metal starting gates burst open to start that mile-and-a-quarter sprint.So be it. On this Derby morning I will conjure up an image on the western horizon, majestic steeples atop Churchill Downs, brightly sparkling in the May morning dew. No matter that I may need to make do with two mighty Carolina pines positioned just so against the open sky. That’s where bourbon comes in handy.Yes, in proper commemoration of my secret holiday, I will crack the wax of a Maker’s bottle, pick my favorite horse and jockey and sit in front of the TV to take it all in. Watching as ESPN beams images of my Louisville into my living room, I will feel, if only for a moment, like I’m back in the Derby City. And after “My Old Kentucky Home” is sung and the bugle has been blown, I’ll be in a peak state, communing with the ghost of Hunter S. Thompson for another Kentucky Derby a long way from home.I wish you were here. Gary Popp is a Jeffersonville native who now lives in North Carolina. Contact him at leo@leoweekly.com