Thursday, May 1, 2014

Reliving My First Kentucky Derby

--Drew Rauso

May 3, 2013
8:15 a.m. (34 hours to post)
   Excited chatter outside the door. Wiping away the grogginess but still dealing with hazy vision, you stumble up the creaky stairs, trying not to wake up the sleeping roommate whose room is between yours and the stairs. The dufflebag hoisted over your shoulder keeps slipping and banging into the railing, making any attempt at a quiet escape essentially nonexistent. Grabbing the keys as you open the door and slide out sideways, you are greeted with brisk May air, along with four 20-somethings and way too many bags for a weekend trip. The sound of car doors slamming shut is soon replaced by doorbells ringing as the five bodies meander into Bagel Place in College Park, Md. While there is an air of excitement, the clock reminds everyone of the early hour, which slightly diminishes any attempt at energetic conversation.  Bagels purchased, seating arrangements established and torsos scrunched into an unfortunate Saab 9-3’s limited amount of legroom, the journey began.
Welcome to KY
   For some (albeit, most) people, ten hours on the road would disqualify any destination on the other end, no matter what the presumed outcome. When dealing with foreigners, however, distance, time, money and convenience aren’t exactly make-it-or-break-it factors. Skipping a long and somewhat bromantic tale, I befriended several UK and Australian citizens while they spent their year on exchange at the University of Maryland during the 2012-2013 school year. I had just returned from Rome the previous spring on my abroad trip, and had signed up to act as a college buddy to the incoming exchange students (though they may tell you I went looking for them, a truer tale may be found in my acknowledgment of simply looking for an Italian ragazza--girl--to partner with back in College Park, which did not happen).  Near the end of our time together after a long school year filled with inside jokes, somewhat insightful cultural commentaries and downright stupid decisions, I was persuaded to join Max, Tom, Tim and Jack and go to the 139th Kentucky Derby.

10 a.m. (31.5 hours to post)
   The early-morning haze is now long gone, replaced by various pitches of English accents excitedly discussing what possibly lies in store at the end of this long trip. Having been on the road for barely an hour and a half, everyone is settling in, trying to get comfortable in a perpetually uncomfortable scenario. Enter The Big Hill, the first setback in your journey, and it is occurring much earlier than you had hoped. As the little Saab carried its cargo up a massive hill in western Maryland, the engine seemed to give out. Speed rapidly decreasing, at first no one but you, the driver, notices.  
  Soon enough, as 70 mph turns to 50 which turns to 40, everyone sits up and asks questions at once, which of course is always the best possible solution to any problem. You pull into a rest stop at the top of the hill, frantic to look under the hood and check out your beloved vehicle of choice. While everyone else enjoys a quick stretch of the legs, every possible worst scenario rushes through your head: “What if it’s broken down?  Do we need a tow to get home?  Everyone’s going to think I did something wrong!”  Fortunately, under expert analysis of our very own Aussie, you come to the conclusion that it is merely huffing and puffing in fifth gear with a large cargo, and when going up hills, the car should go down to fourth or even third (common knowledge for most manual drivers; alas, I learned the hard way). Crisis averted, you hop back in, groans are exchanged about said little leg room, and you’re back on the road.
   The crazy thing about this whole trip is that when I tell American friends, they are shocked I decided to just hop in a car and drive more than ten hours and go to the Derby. For most people, the event is just something you don’t go to. For Maryland students, many make the trip to Baltimore not long after to go to the Preakness, which has prompted the creation of the shirt, “Get your Preak on,” (I’m not kidding). But the Preakness has morphed into something of an abomination, a cross-breed between a music festival and a college tailgate, with performers headlining the day, the infield a sea of drunken college students and little appreciation for the races.  That’s why, when confronted with the question, “Do you want to come with us to the Kentucky Derby?”  My first thought was, “We have the Preakness in our backyard, why don’t we skip the ten hour drive?” I was met with the reply: “That’s not the race that stops the world, mate!” And so it was decided. There is an unfamiliar edge of adventure when with foreigners staying in your country. They want to see places you’d never think of seeing, go to events you’ve never heard of and make the most out of their trip, for good reason. It’s exactly what I was doing six months prior in Italy, and why I loved having them as friends; I didn’t want to go back to a mundane college lifestyle; I wanted to DO things. Well I sure got my wish.

7 p.m. (23.5 hours to post)
   After five more rest stops, a newfound love of Sheetz gas stations and entirely too many crude jokes, you are pulling into Louisville, stopping the clock at a cool 11 hours on the road. Greeted by a downpour brought on by Zeus himself, you clutch the wheel so tightly it’s possible you’ll never let go, fearing any sort of vehicular mishap now would be truly demoralizing. The rain makes it hard to see, but you can just make out the University of Louisville basketball arena to the left as you slowly creep into downtown and all of its wonderful Friday night traffic. There are fleeting images, hints that something major is happening this weekend, but if you were born under a rock you might not know what it is. A sign here, a restaurant special there are just glimpses of what’s to come. 

May 4, 2013
10 a.m.  (7.5 hours to post)
   You look around at the fifty other people huddling under a roof as there is a collective sigh of relief when the shuttle bus arrives. Having already been awake since 7 to fully appreciate the hotel’s complimentary breakfast services (prompting a certain Englishman to call you the personification of the fattest country on earth), you are fully awake and ready for the day. Hopping on the bus, careful not to slip on the stairs after giggling at two friends in front of you who do exactly that, you slide into a seat and cannot contain your excitement. And then, in a flash (literally, we turned a corner and saw a lightning bolt) there it is. Churchill Downs. A glistening cathedral of an ancient sport on its most important day. Sure, the glistening is from the nonstop rain, but the metaphor is there for the taking. After stopping to take a group photo (yes, the inner tourist in all of us jumped at the chance), you scamper over the puddles and eagerly await the gate-checker, clutching the ticket under your jacket like the Holy Grail it is. 
   The “general admission” ticket gained entry into the underbelly of the grandstand, a crowded, damp and musty area that feels like the basement of an outdated baseball stadium, and speaking of baseball, you see the ticket allows permits entrance to the infield. Ahhh, the infield. A modern-day World’s Fair, complete with circus acts (drunkards sliding down mud swaths), acrobats (drunkards somehow staying upright while swaying back and forth) and tokens from the Far East (that would be you, seeing how far away home in New Jersey feels at the moment). At times the majestic beasts could barely be seen, so crowded the space along the fence is. While you didn’t drive all the way to Louisville to be a target for champion mud-tossers, there is something to be said about just how outrageous the enclosed zoo is ( a term coined by a friend describing the animals inside the fence, not the ones racing outside).
   Do you ever envision yourself in places you’ve never been, then actually get to go and see them and realize your dream was nothing like reality?  For me, the Derby fell somewhat into that category. I had spent the nights leading up to our drive lying in bed picturing the famous track and the beautiful people populating it. Instead, we played witness to far too many drunk college kids, pointing at us in our suits and making us feel like idiots for expecting more. It is truly disappointing that the weather was so bad, because the entire event was just screaming for a beautiful day. Now, unfortunately, my memory is skewed and my idea of the race tainted. While fully aware of the grandeur and large-scale that Churchill Downs evokes, May 4, 2014 was a day built around filth, precipitation and just plain sloppiness. For one thing, the infield was so muddy and gross (I’m not talking about plain dirtiness here; this was stage-five clinger type of wet terrain) that it was not uncommon to see drunken Derby-goers completely caked head to toe in mud. Even with all this slop, I remember wanting to believe that this was not truly the Kentucky Derby, the greatest two minutes in sports and the pinnacle of the sport of kings. Something was missing…

5 p.m. (2.5 hours to post)
   Underneath the seats, away from the downpour and drunken arguments and mudslides, you find yourself in a much happier place. Sure, the pants of your first-ever suit are muddy and you had to defend yourself for buying a $5 poncho (still believe it was a great purchase), but you are dry and sipping on the nectar of the gods, otherwise known as a mint julep. While one member of the group quips that the real race outside is the first to the bottom of a julep glass, you peer meticulously at the program, only half-knowing what you’re looking at. Mind made up, exacta boxed placed, gun goes off, mud thrown everywhere, and all of a sudden, your two horses win and place! Quickly walking to the betting window, expecting a $40-50 payout (being the frugal college student, a $4 bet was all that was wagered) your quiet excitement blossoms into full-blown pandemonium when the machine flashes $275. Not a bad payout for the cheap kid from New Jersey.      
   Looking around, stuffing the wad of bills into an inside suit pocket, you see the “true” Derby crowd all around you, and the flashy suits and big hats make the inside of the grandstand seem much farther than a stone’s throw from the mayhem that is outside. “I fit in here,” you say to yourself, even though that may be a bit premature. And then, all of a sudden, it’s time. Race 11.
   I don’t like roller coasters. They make me sick. Well, I like the thrill of being on a roller coaster, but I don’t like being sick afterwards. And that was my experience in Louisville. Up and down, up and down, then illness (maybe the last part was from several extra mint juleps, but at least it fits the metaphor, right?). All day, I was excited, then partly let down, then excited again. Waking up on Derby day, then having to pay for an hour-long taxi ride. Finally arriving at Churchill, then being stuck out in the rain. Hoping for the classiest of days, being part of a mudbath. Mad at the world for taking my money, winning almost $300. In many ways, the day exemplified what it must feel like to be a gambling man, which I am most certainly not. Earning a paycheck and taking it right to a casino is something I have never done, but for some reason earning a paycheck and heading to a track is something I have. Why? There is something about horse racing, the social gathering, the sport spectacle, that I appreciate and long for. You don’t find the same sort of community at a casino, and you certainly don’t find the same experience there. 
   The Derby for me was much less about the actual race as it was about the entire day, the trip, the city of Louisville. Standing outside, being one of the 150,000+ people all cheering and screaming for two minutes only to see a moving cloud of wet dirt around the track made me think. The 139th Kentucky Derby was the end of the day, but it wasn’t the climax. You see, watching Orrrrrrrrrbbbbbbbbbb win was exciting, but it was just like the other races. I was at Churchill Downs! I just drove over 11 hours with friends whom I became closer with. Every minute was spent waiting to get to that one race, but in reality, I didn’t have to wait. The experience was all around me. The 139th Kentucky Derby, my first one and hopefully not my last, gave me a clear definition of a word that gets used a lot (I’ve already said it here): spectacle. The day was spectacular, it was grand and it was a show, but for reasons other than watching a two-minute race at the end of a very long day.

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