A person’s “first Derby” is a big deal, right? I think so. I think it’s a big enough deal to make a series of posts, especially, as of this writing, while “Derby fever” is building.
Part 1 of the series talks about how I got my most unique – and coveted – spot to watch the race.
But my first Kentucky Derby it wasn’t all big hats, red roses and mint juleps. Because, for all intents and purposes, I was part of the TV crew.
The ghost with the crew
Because I had a TV crew credential, I needed to look the part. I used to work on TV crews, so I knew what to wear for a day of work. Sneakers, jeans and a shirt. I also carried a camera bag with my Nikon FM and a couple of lenses. And, because of the chilly rain weather, I had a jacket.
What didn’t occur to me was that, for a woman strolling around Churchill Downs on Derby Day, I was vastly under-dressed. And I didn’t have enough cameras to pass as one of the sports photographers.
Because I had no real job to do, I had no specific place to hang out. Sounds great, right? Go anywhere, do anything? Roaming around Churchill Downs on Derby Day?
In theory, it’s great. 😉
Please don’t get me wrong – I was thrilled to be there. But adrenalin fades about your 8th hour in, especially if you’ve been waiting for that entire span of time and have a few more hours of waiting to go.
5 am crew call
Yes, at the track. Yes, it was still dark. And, unlike the previous day for the Kentucky Oaks which had been run under iconic blue skies, Derby Day itself dawned cold and rainy.
I usually like to watch horses work. But I also like to go out for breakfast afterward, followed by a cozy nap.
Not only was there no returning to the hotel, I had no real place to sit. Think about it. For a seat on Derby Day – unless you bring your own – you pay extra for the privilege.
So, for a while, I could sit on the various benches and flat seat-level places around the outside of the grandstand. But they soon filled up with people willing to park themselves along with companions to hold the spot. (That was one of my problems. I was alone. No one to hold my seat or watch my stuff.) Sometimes, I perched on metal equipment crates set up outside the TV truck.
You’re thinking, why didn’t you go to the backstretch? I wasn’t sure that I could go there without a specific job to do, and I didn’t want to lose my credential for whatever the reason, especially for doing something dumb or inappropriate by accident. Or worse causing through causing problems by accident.
And then there was the rain and the mud.
I also believed that, because I wore a TV network credential, whatever I did would reflect for good or ill upon my husband’s company. I had already been warned: no mint juleps while wearing the creds. And I knew to stay out of people’s way, especially with so much glory and money on the line.
So, I haunted the TV truck area (where I knew how to stay out of the way), the Rose Garden, the Paddock and betting windows area. Because Derby crowds, especially in the Infield, begin drinking and partying as early as 6 am, my husband didn’t want me to go into the Infield, especially alone.
As a result, every decision I made that Derby Day was to make sure that I would be able to get onto that press box elevator in the late afternoon.
Very early that morning, I sat down with the program and made my Derby pick. $5 to Win on Slew O’Gold. No wishy-washy Show bets for me. No, sir. Not for the son of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew.
I enjoyed my visits to the paddock until I realized that people had simply parked themselves there for the duration. The crowd soon became four and five deep along that rail, so eventually I couldn’t find a place to stand where I could see the horses.
At least, I only had to claim a spot – the spot, IMO, to watch the race — for an hour and a half. But seeing the savvy crowd laughing at the paddock rails – hey, was anyone even watching the horses?? hello??? – made me wonder if I really could get upstairs to that spot on the press box roof which had been my goal all along.
Stirring my anxiety more, about 2 or 3 pm, the crowd along the walkways closed into a shoulder-t0-shoulder density. Think of the movie “Soylent Green” (1973) or Times Square on New Year’s Eve. I believed I could have wedged myself into that crowd, lifted my feet and been been carried along by the moving shoulders pressed against me.
Finally, almost 11 hours after my arrival at Churchill Downs, came the time to head up to “my spot” on the press box roof.
Stay tuned for Part 3 to find out how it was all worth it. Of course, it was. But nothing worth doing comes without cost or effort. As if you were surprised. But how was it all worth it? Find out soon.
In case you missed Part 1.