Derby Issue 2014: What’s your favorite Derby story?
LEO asks folks around town for their fondest memories
JENN ALLEN, Marketing Coordinator at Galen College of Nursing
Believe it or not, 2014 will actually be my first Derby at the track, and I’m excited to be cheering the horses on in real life, versus yelling maniacally at a TV screen. Born and raised here, I come from a family of horseracing enthusiasts, and even some racehorse owners, so some of the fondest memories I have of the ol’ Run for the Roses stem from adolescence. Needless to say, my family took our Derby festivities (and perhaps, most importantly, our Derby betting) very seriously. There may or may not have been a bookie involved …
One day a year, my late Papaw Stanley’s garage would be transformed into a high-tension betting arena for many of the men (and some of the ladies) in my extended family; some would travel hundreds of miles from northern Indiana, North Carolina and Tennessee just to take part in this particular brand of Derby-ing. Until I was about 12, I couldn’t understand the need for such a spectacle and refused to take part in what I assumed was just another ridiculous thing parents did to embarrass you. (Because when you’re 12, this is the only reason parents exist.) The yelling, screaming, “whoo!”-ing — it was all just too much.
However, once my cousin Julie and I discovered that with a little research and some beginner’s luck, we could win some serious cash, we reconsidered our position. We immediately began researching odds, horses and track types, and, of course, picking out the silk colors we thought were the most awesome. Bargaining with our parents for an advance on allowances in the spirit of the race, we pulled together about $20-$30 — and ended up winning over $200. For a 12-year-old, trust me, this will get you a lot of Lisa Frank gear.
Nowadays, I have no shame when I get overly excited about a long-shot win, or when the trumpeter plays “My Old Kentucky Home” and I become sentimental and misty-eyed. I can even tolerate those folks who yell, “Go, Baby, Go!” or hats that read “Talk Derby to Me.” (Just don’t ask me to drink a mint julep.) It’s a time to come together and be ridiculous, and personally, those are two of my favorite things ever.
BRIAN BUFORD, Director of LGBT Center at University of Louisville, Assistant Provost for Diversity
Although I think I’ve watched every Derby on television since I moved to Louisville in 1988, I’ve only attended one in 1992, the year Lil E. Tee won. At that time, Louisville was just in the early stages of grappling with fairness for LGBT people and was still many years away from passing the landmark Fairness Amendment that exists now and provides a source of protection to so many people in our community.
I was going to the rallies and also coming to terms with my own identity around the time I went to that Derby, and I tell you, I was feeling like a second-class citizen. I wondered if I’d made a mistake in choosing to stay in Kentucky and to make this the start of my journey as a gay man. When they played “My Old Kentucky Home,” I remember thinking to myself that there were probably many people in the stands who wished I would make my home somewhere else. It hurt to hear that song and not feel like I was a part of the sentiment, and to not feel the pride and sense of connection that others seemed to have.
It took many years and the work of so many incredible people, but I will never forget the first Derby celebration after the Fairness Amendment finally passed, and the moment when the song began to play. I was watching the Derby on TV with friends, and what a huge difference I felt in my whole being. This time I sang with all my heart, knowing I was at home here in Louisville and that the sun does shine brighter now. Every year since, I find myself in tears every time when they sing that song, because it feels like Kentucky is my home, too. I’m proud to live in a city that extends fairness to all, and to work for a university that is welcoming and inclusive of all members of the community. I can’t wait for the day when every citizen in Kentucky is protected from discrimination and feels included as well.
DANIEL COLE, “Hard Candy” producer
As an event planner, over the years I’ve been a part of a lot of exciting Derby events. It’s very easy for people to get star-struck and carried away with all of the celebrity guests. A few years back, I was juggling the arrival of several celebrities for events at Fourth Street Live nightclubs. The weather was bad — flights were delayed and canceled left and right.
Actress Stacy Keibler was unable to arrive; her flight was canceled and she spent the night in a Chicago hotel instead of enjoying Derby festivities. I was at the airport with a car service awaiting the arrival of Mario Lopez, the featured guest for a Derby event. As the night went on, his flight was delayed time and time again. It finally arrived several hours late. The flight had been extremely turbulent due to the thunderstorms, and the passengers were noticeably shaken.
Actress Maggie Grace was on the flight as well. I vividly remember tears streaming down her face and her hugging her boyfriend tightly at arrival. Mario finally came through, weary and exhausted. He briefly ran by the hotel, freshened up and went on to the event. Soon, he was signing autographs and taking photos for fans less than an hour after that harrowing and frightening travel experience. Some fans were outraged at his hours-late appearance, yet had no idea what his night had been like. Us Weekly reminds us often, but we still forget: “Celebrities, They’re Just Like Us.”
JACK CONWAY, Kentucky Attorney General
As a kid growing up in Louisville, I was always fascinated with the Kentucky Derby. I memorized all the Derby winners and their jockeys, and my father used to trot me out and quiz me like a pint-sized cocktail party trick. In the spring of 2010, I had the incredible experience of owning a horse that ran in the Kentucky Derby. At the time, I owned half of one thoroughbred with my dad. We had a horse, Stately Victor, named after my childhood best friend, Victor Perrone, who passed away in a tragic car accident while he was working his way through law school.
Stately Victor took our family on an unforgettable ride after he crossed the finish line first at Keeneland’s Blue Grass Stakes. I don’t think either of us slept that night, and probably watched the replay of the race a couple of dozen times. Dad said he’d dreamed of that moment since he was riding mule races in the cornfields of Union County.
During the week leading up to the Derby, we had a chance to reconnect with Victor’s family. His nephew, who is named after Victor, came to the backside one morning to meet the horse. He told me that for the first time in his 13 years, he felt like he was connecting with his uncle. That is a memory I will always treasure.
My father and I always watched the post parade on Derby Day and dreamed of what they would be like. On the first Saturday in May of 2010, we lived the dream. That muddy afternoon, we accompanied Stately Victor from the backside to the paddock while tens of thousands of people were cheering and calling to us from the crowd. It was magical. It was surreal. The hair on my neck stood up as sounds of “My Old Kentucky Home” echoed through Churchill Downs.
Stately Victor finished eighth, after getting caught up in traffic. As a Kentuckian and a son, I will never forget sharing that Derby with my dad, who taught me to love the race and the tradition of horseracing. I have to thank an amazing horse and a magical friend for the trip of a lifetime and my favorite Kentucky Derby memory.
ROBBY DAVIS, artist
I’ll begin my favorite Derby story with a confession — I have never been. (Gasp!) Born and raised in the Louisville area, and not once have I participated in the holiest of holy events the bluegrass state has to offer. You’re probably asking yourself, “How does this guy even call himself a Louisvillian?” Bourbon — that’s how.
Several years ago, my wife Heather and I were invited to attend Derby with a friend to watch from the backside. We were excited to go, but plans fell though and we were left ticketless on Derby Day. As you can imagine, we were pretty bummed out and a little bitter. In an effort to make ourselves feel better, we decided to hit the road. Determined to soak up as much Kentucky tradition as possible in one day, we began our journey along the Bourbon Trail. This was early in our bourbon-drinking careers, so we had to fight through the contorted facial expressions and remind ourselves that bourbon is good ... we should like this stuff ... just drink it and smile. And we did. We knocked out Heaven Hill and Maker’s Mark that day and even bought a bottle to bring home for “practice.”
In the years since, we’ve visited each distillery multiple times, and our appreciation for bourbon has grown into a love. Looking back, it’s clear we were trying to replace one Kentucky tradition with another, and in the process we created our own tradition — a tradition that starts with a road trip winding us through the state we love and ending with the sweet taste of Kentucky in a glass.
To me, Derby Day is a day to celebrate Kentucky tradition and connect with the bluegrass spirit. Some people do it at a betting window and others do it behind the wheel. It doesn’t really matter how you do it, it only matters that you keep doing it.
MELODY DENNISON, artist
For living in Louisville all of my life, I had somehow escaped never having a mint julep or wearing an over-the-top fancy hat with my dress on Derby Day. A few years ago, I decided to finally embrace all of the Derby traditions I had been missing out on. I went to a Derby party all dressed up with my biggest fancy hat on; I finally got to try a mint julep, and it was everything I dreamed it would be. Men were wearing seersucker suits and the women looked like the rich heirs of lavish estates. I felt so fancy!
When the time came to watch the race, everyone was wild eyed and screaming at the TV. I finally understood what all the fuss was about, and I loved it. There’s something to be said about feeling extremely fancy while you’re cussing at horses on a TV. It’s definitely a distinct Kentucky thing. If they did this anywhere else, we’d probably think they were nuts.
Now, every year I look forward to the smell of fresh mint and bourbon, finding the biggest, fanciest hat I can, and picking out the horse with the best name to win because I don’t know anything about horseracing. To me, Derby feels like I’m getting in a time machine for one day and stopping 50 or so years ago, when we all would have dressed liked this, when life went a little slower, when traditions were strong.
I don’t think Derby is about the short horse race, which is very exciting (especially if you’ve bet on it), as much as it is about Kentucky traditions we want to keep alive that we’re proud of, which almost always involve having a reason to drink bourbon with friends while looking good doing it.
CHUCK MF DEUCE, multimedia director, Skyscraper Stereo
I can’t remember the exact year — all I can tell you was that Fourth Street Live was a new thing. Me and a friend I’ve known since high school were doing our wallflower thing, at whatever club Sully’s used to be, on Oaks night. I decided my money was burning a hole in my pocket and it was time for one of those famous Fourth Street Live watered-down cocktails.
At the bar, a tall, Grace Jones-looking woman brushed her elbow on my shoulder. I can’t remember what exactly she said, but I remember thinking, “This chick is trying to use my lines on me! So this is how it feels?”
She proceeded to ask me questions, like: “Do you live here?” “Are you single?” “Is there anywhere we can go from here?” I brushed her off and returned to my friend, slightly annoyed. His eyes were bulging out of his head.
“What did she say?!” he screamed.
“Who?” I’m very confused.
“The tennis player! Venus Williams! It looked like she was hitting on you!”
“The tall black chick?”
“Yes, man! Look in the V.I.P. — you see the short girl with the big booty? That’s Serena. The tall one next to her? Look familiar? Yeah. Her sister, Venus. You just turned down a million-dollar piece of booty.”
My head hit the floor. “Yes. Yes, I did.”
And that’s how I fudged my one and only opportunity to be a trophy husband.
GAIL FAUSTYN, student at IUS
I moved to Louisville in 2011 from Michigan, and up until that year, I didn’t understand the full extent of what the Kentucky Derby was, or what it means to people in this area. The weeks that lead up to Derby make me feel like a complete and total alien. I knew it was a race, I knew it involved horses, and that’s all I knew. I’m ashamed to admit it, but until recently, I thought Oaks was a pony race.
I think Derby is great for the city. It brings people together and kids get off of school — it’s like a second Christmas, a statewide holiday. Unfortunately, I am unquestionably mortified of horses of all shapes and all sizes — I am an equal-opportunity horse fearer. I’ve never been injured by a horse or chased by one, but the thought that I could be someday, somewhere still shakes me.
My sister is a member of the Citizen’s Police Academy in Louisville, and they hosted a family day. The day consisted of a dinner and learning about the departments of the academy, like drug dogs. My sister failed to mention, intentionally, that the mounted police would be there.
The mounted police didn’t appear until the end. As they entered, I felt scared, sweaty and nervous. The horses looked at least 25 feet tall. I stand at a measly 5-foot-2. I knew I was unevenly matched. I stood paralyzed in fear, teary-eyed, watching as the 8-year-old in the group laughed and petted the horse, having the time of his life. Equinophobia, the psychological fear of horses, does exist. I guess admitting I have it is the first step to recovery.
I appreciate everything Derby is — American fun for all. Only I will enjoy the festivities from the comfort of my home. If, by some strange twist of fate, I end up there this year, I will be the girl who is sitting the furthest away from the race, irrationally trying to avoid being kicked in the face by a horse.
DAWNE GEE, WAVE-3 news anchor
The Kentucky Derby is the greatest two minutes in sports! But the fashion show surrounding the race starts early and lasts all day. It was early in my broadcasting career. I was prepared both with details for the day and with my fashion. I wore a beautiful cream St. John suit with lavender accents and a cream hat with lavender floral accents. I felt confidant, as if I could actually stand in the Winner’s Circle that day. I was anchoring the morning news with my co-anchor and best friend Chris Parente. We were almost done for the morning.
As we went to commercial break, Bob Domine and Chris Parente were laughing and having so much fun. One or both slapped the anchor desk, causing two cups of coffee to fall, hitting me directly in my lap like a bull’s-eye. I didn’t even hear the countdown as we came back from break. My next assignment was Millionaire’s Row. This is the area that hosts all of the celebrities — like Michael Jordan, ZZ Top and Queen Elizabeth — and I’m making my appearance in a cream-colored St. John suit with brown stains in my lap. With no time or way to go home, the word “nightmare” didn’t even describe this scenario. That’s when I heard our field producer Sherlene Shanklin say the words, “Do you trust me?”
I must have uttered “Yes,” although after the coffee hit my lap, I have no recollection of space or time, and it all seemed like a blur. She ran to one of the stables, grabbed a clean bucket, filled it with soapy water, and proceeded to pour it in my lap. If you looked closely, you could see the outline of a watermark, but the noticeable stain was gone. No one was going to be that close to my crotch to detect the disaster. I was wet the entire day from my waist down, but no one ever knew it — no one but our little crew knew. But I will never let Chris Parente and Bob Domine ever forget it!
WIL HEUSER, Louisville’s “Big Brother” and executive director of marketing for Heuser Health
Derby Day, 2004. The race had just ended, and I departed Churchill Downs in the back of a van with nine women. I was the only guy in the car. After waiting half an hour in traffic, I decided to kick off my shoes and partake in an alcoholic beverage, a Smirnoff Ice (obviously, I had no taste in 2004, not even in my mouth). Ten minutes later, it happened. I had to pee so bad, I felt as if the urine was going to come out my eyes! The designated driver pulled into the White Castle on Market Street so I could use the establishment’s fine restroom. I go to put my shoes back on … Gone. Vanished. Poof! The shoes are nowhere to be found.
Five minutes later, I exited the White Castle, relieved, with an empty tank … wearing 6-inch stiletto heels.
BOBBIE HOLSCLAW, Jefferson County Clerk
One of the things I hold dearest to my heart is my heritage. I am many things, but most of all, I am a Kentuckian. As time goes by, years and memories begin to sum themselves up in specific moments and annual traditions. Every August, my husband Ed and I celebrate our anniversary. Every January, my family comes together to recognize my birthday. And every May, rain or shine, we celebrate the Kentucky Derby.
Derby, for us Kentuckians, is a way of life. It signifies the beginning of spring and it acknowledges so many of the beautiful things the commonwealth has to offer. Whether you go to Churchill Downs and sit in the stands or watch the race from your living room, with your family and a plate of snacks, it’s a tradition and a celebration that is part of who we are.
Of course Oaks and Derby are the main attractions, but who could forget all of the festive activities that lead up to the first weekend in May? The Pegasus Parade has always been one of my personal favorites, dating back to my childhood. As a little girl, I would wait and watch as the excitement moved toward me and then on down the street. When I was a senior in high school, I had the opportunity to put on a beautiful dress and ride atop one of the floats, waving at the people lining the streets. These days, I like to go with my grandchildren and stand next to them while new floats, with beautiful Derby princesses on top of them, pass by.
The best Pegasus Parade I ever attended, though, was the year I met my husband. A mutual friend introduced us, and since that time, Ed and I have celebrated every Derby together. These days, we sit down for dinner at Pat’s Steak House after the big race. It’s a tradition we’ve grown fond of, and it’s a great way to wind down after so much excitement.
The Kentucky Derby is, and always will be, a holiday to me. And if you consider family, friends and laughs to be the finest prizes in the world (which I do), then I win big every year.
JONI JENKINS, Democratic State Representative, Louisville
Some years ago, before Churchill Downs so strictly restricted what you could bring into the track on Derby Day — and since it’s past the statute of limitations on this type of thing — my brother Dave and I had a little contest of who could bring in the most elaborate picnic lunch and snacks. I baked teeny tiny Derby pies one year. He made little country ham biscuits. In addition to the food, we also tried to outdo one another in sneaking in adult beverages in the most outrageous manner. I believe I hold the title for the year I brought a bottle of champagne in a sub sandwich. I bought a really big Italian loaf, which I sliced lengthwise and hollowed out, and placed the bottle in the sandwich and topped it with a large leaf of lettuce and the top bun. I then wrapped the “sandwich” in tons of Saran wrap and placed it on the top of the cooler. Upon reaching our box, we brought out the orange juice, cups and unwrapped the “sandwich” and toasted Derby Day with mimosas.
JUNE KEY, 89, author of “Blue Streak”
I have lived in Louisville my entire almost-90 years. I have never seen a Kentucky Derby; however, I did come close in 1937. It was no accident; it was well planned. My buddy Blue Streak and I would make our way to Churchill Downs. I would park Blue Streak by a tree and chain her around the tree to lock her up. I had a sign that said: “Do not remove by order of officer J. Key, Badge 34.”
I then very innocently walked across the street, down Central Avenue to the back of the Downs. I noticed a couple men walking back and forth inside the tall wire fence. I kept my eyes on my Mickey Mouse watch. It took them 19 minutes to circle the barns. On the next round, I asked them, “You ever catch anyone coming through the fence?” The one laughed and answered, “Yeah, every so often some little boy will try, but we catch ’em.”
I asked, “No little girls?”
“Naw, girls can’t do that.”
That was the wrong thing to tell me. It would not be the last time someone would tell me “Girls can’t do that.” These were fighting words.
I nonchalantly walked to the end of the fence, where the wire was pretty well crunched. If I was careful, I could get through. I watched as the guards started around the barns, and I slid through like a slippery eel. I walked around the infield, looked at all the people having a good time, and ran smack into my two guards. Of course they remembered me, and I talked my way out of being in more trouble. I told them I would show them where not only boys can get through, but girls can do it better. I told them I would leave the way I came — through the fence. I did and told Blue Streak all about it heading home, victoriously.
DAVID LIPP, Cantor at Congregation Adath Jeshurun
“I got the horse right here, the name is Paul Revere.” —From “Fugue for Tinhorns” in “Guys and Dolls”
As an observant Jew, I’ve never been able to attend Derby and most likely never will. I don’t drive, use electricity or handle money on the Sabbath, so it’s kind of a nonstarter. But one year, I had the unique experience of seeing the Derby with my dad.
Since my family can’t attend Derby in person, we used to be the three people getting on the one airplane out of Louisville at the same time that hordes of hatboxes with people attached would arrive at the airport. For many years, it was an opportunity we had to visit family — often my father, who was living in a memory facility for Alzheimer’s patients in Minneapolis. We would stay in a bed-and-breakfast nearby and walk there on the Sabbath to visit.
On Saturday afternoon, I arrived at the facility prepared to talk with my dad, who no longer recognized me as his son. Conversations were no longer about my trying to convince him that we were related. I would generally tell him about my life and let him speak about whatever his deep memory would conjure. But then I came into his room, and he was sitting on his couch watching TV. Although I won’t turn on a TV on the Sabbath, if one is on already, I won’t turn it off. It was not long until Derby post time, and he seemed engaged. So I sat next to my father and watched the Derby for the first time ever. I don’t remember what year it was, and I don’t remember who won. What I do remember is sharing a moment from my adoptive hometown with my dad, imagining what it would have been like to sit in a crowded box with him, clinking glasses of beer, arguing about which horses we should have bet on, mock-insulting each other with his hyperbolic/authentic and my fake-but-earnest Brooklyn accent. He wouldn’t have known the words or melody to “My Old Kentucky Home,” but I’ll bet he would have started singing the “Fugue for Tinhorns” as we argued over the racing forms.
They say music lasts in a part of the brain that outlasts most others. Although by that time he didn’t know who I was, he was still comfortable enough with me, sitting on that couch, to enjoy a hug, a laugh and a cheer.
BERNIE LUBBERS, Whiskey Ambassador for Heaven Hill, aka The Whiskey Professor
Proud Spell won the 2008 Kentucky Oaks over Little Belle by five lengths. That’s how history will remember that day … but not for me, Paul Halloran and Mike Bowling. It all started innocently enough with morning cocktails at Paul’s house. As I arrived around 9 a.m., Mike was making simple syrup for mint juleps. We were going to the races that day, and boy, did it start out promising. The juleps were delicious, Mike had a new sport coat and made more than the usual “look at my new sport coat” comment, and I was driving in my new convertible. The three of us were excited to get to the track.
We parked at the remote Papa John’s lot. Hell, we even got a lift to the track by a friendly Churchill Downs golf cart. We’re already lucky and we’re not even in the door! We even got to see the 9-year-old evangelist who’s always out on Central Avenue casting all us sinners in to hell. What great mic technique he has, and stage presence!
After handicapping our first race, we went to make our bets. Paul had a look on his face that looked like no distillery was going to ever make bourbon again. He couldn’t find his wallet. And he just didn’t have his money in it; he had $800 from his family to make Derby bets. Apparently I didn’t show enough concern, and I was accused of “not reacting fast enough.” Not sure of what that meant, but we got past that rough patch when the wallet was found in a rarely used pocket in his rarely worn Seersucker suit.
It was a good day, and we even did OK on betting. Nothing to write home about, but we got to see the Oaks. Then, as we walked out of the gate, it started to rain. And it didn’t just start raining, it poured. Boy, did we ever need the 9-year-old evangelist to put an end to the rain, but he had apparently already packed up and cashed in his winning tickets. The drops were relentless, and the wind was blowing like crazy. It’s not that far of a walk on Central Avenue, unless it’s raining. And we were walking silent, until Mike came out with a rant of profanity that continued like a symphony of cuss words that Bernie Taupin and James Taylor could not have strung together. After all, it was a new sport coat, and he was convinced water was going to ruin it.
As we were subjected, or privileged, to be a part of the tirade of profanity, Paul started to laugh uncontrollably. We finally made it to my new car, and the squishing sound of us all sitting down and dripping on the new leather seats just capped it all off. As if on cue, we all started to laugh uncontrollably at the absurd situation. The new sport coat and leather seats dried just fine, as did our friendships, and that day added a great memory to the Derby weekend we still laugh about today.
MARC SALMON, Human Resources Director at the Brown Hotel
I remember seeing a horse owner and his entourage proudly enter the lobby of the Brown Hotel the night of the Kentucky Derby several years ago. The group sat down in the English Grill and began ordering cocktails, expensive wines and a lavish feast. It was clear they had a good day at the track — we quickly found out how good.
After dinner, they asked to watch the replay of the Derby race in our lobby bar. As the winning horse crossed the finish line, the whole group erupted with cheers, jumping and hollering like it was the first time they had seen the race. It was their horse that won! They asked a member of the Brown Hotel team to rewind the tape and play it again, and again, and again — loudly cheering for their horse each time. They ended up watching the race about a dozen times in a row right there in the lobby, yelling at the finish each time.
JOHN YARMUTH, U.S. Congressman
In 1980, a few friends and I pooled together about $5,000 and bought a yearling at the Keeneland Fall Sale. We named him Delegator (he was the grandson of Buckpasser).
At the time, it cost $100 to nominate a horse for the Derby. So I nominated him, which put him in the pool of more than 400 horses nominated that year. By some fluke, he ended up getting into the second race on Derby Day. It was an allowance race, and he hadn’t even broken his maiden yet.
Before the race, I could barely sit still. My heart was pounding. I felt like I had a Derby horse. Then it was off. Delegator ran a strong race, closing in the stretch. He finished fifth by two-and-a-half lengths.
It was the best race he ever ran. And we probably should’ve known he was out of his league. On the scratch sheet next to his name that Derby Day, the comment on Delegator read simply: “Nice way to get Derby tickets.”