Photo by MartyPearl.com

May 6, 2009

Derby for the rest of us

From the center looking outward on Oaks Day

You should know that by the end of this story everything will be in its right place*.

That’s how Derby weekend usually goes: As you return to orbit in the actual world, your body is normal. The bruises heal, and the washing machine will take care of that stain on your chinos. You recoil in horror at the emptiness of your wallet and, perhaps, checking account, although that too will be redeemed. You briefly consider betting the long-shot next year, but that’s a foolish idea, and Calvin Borel won’t ride both the Oaks and Derby winners again. Probably.

I went to the Kentucky Oaks Friday, to toss coin at the new Infield Club, which is Churchill Downs’s attempt to class up the notoriously perverse mud pit at the center of the track. The ticket was $50, which is not entirely unreasonable because:

1. Bathroom lines were negligible.

2. Other than early afternoon, I didn’t wait more than 90 seconds to place a bet. (N.B. Prohibitive lines can be helpful to those of us who suck at betting on horse racing.)

3. Access to the $7, 16-ounce cans of domestic was easy.

4. All-beef hot dogs and barbecue.

What that ticket didn’t quite do was deliver Clubbers from the carnival surrounding us. Cheap Plexiglas walls enclosed the Club, basically a collection of tents varying in size and pitch. There were quarter-sized holes in the walls, through which you could communicate with the outside, were you to make your mouth really small and angled toward the circles. Revelers on the outside appeared comfortable slapping whatever body parts they could lift onto the Plexiglas, bellowing like bulls. There was dry humping.

It is bizarre to watch this ritual from its center, a place of privilege and access, in part because you cannot see a live horse. You could be challenged to prove to any skeptic that you are, in fact, at a horse race. All around is the most absurd (and unequivocally fun) sacrament of our city, but you are not a participant. As the people gather around the JumboTron for the seventh race and you grope the pockets of your chinos for the ticket, trying to remember what combination you bet, wondering briefly about the mud on your black leather shoes, you will know: You have paid to watch a social race, and everyone outside the Plexiglas is a jockey.

Which is meaningful on Oaks Day — traditionally known as the locals’ Derby — even when it is overcast and the crowd seems thin. Most people don’t care enough about horse racing to play odds, but everyone likes a good party.

As we finally wandered into the Infield, late in the day, an immovable force pulled us toward the legendary Third Turn. We saw blue tarps and blankets laid out, beer bongs and magnums of earth-toned liquid, men without shirts and women with something approximating them.

“I think we’re a little overdressed for this,” my associate told me, looking longingly behind us at the Club.

“No, we fit right in. This is their race. It’s ours, too.”

*I may or may not: (1) Have ridden home cramped in the back of a foreign-made hatchback, driven by a person from Cleveland whom I’d just met on the street; (2) Have watched another associate lose an iPhone in the back of said car, only to get a call from him two days later explaining that a customer service rep at an AT&T store in Cleveland was holding his phone there in his hands, ready to drop it in the mail to Kentucky; (3) Still be in possession of a winning ticket; (4) Prefer Oaks to Derby.

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