A timeless rite of spring

I know I’m not the only person who misses the TV essays from turfwriter Bill Nack. The essay by actor Ashley Judd you see embedded above echoes that long-missed tradition.

Even if she didn’t write it, I know in my heart of hearts, she could have written it. She’s a Kentuckian, and she “gets it.”

Toward the end of each year, as soon as I unwrap a new calendar for the next and start looking down the intimidating barrel of a long New England winter, I mark certain dates.

Our birthdays, our wedding anniversary, and “Derby.” Not necessarily in that order.

The first Saturday in May is one of my annual rituals, which in my heart, is almost as important as Christmas. Not just because “home,” once a year, comes to me, if only for a few hours on a TV screen.

Taking that new calendar and determining if the Derby is on the first days of May or about a week in reminds me winter isn’t endless. That leaves, flowers, and even roses will come. That horses will be on TV for all to enjoy, even those who can’t fit them into their budgets or schedules. That the arrivals of spring and the eagerly anticipated horse races are as certain as the arrival of the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May. Always and forever.

I’m happy to see so many people and businesses, even up here in horse-racing-less New England, start to enjoy Derby fever.

This past Saturday, before I parked myself in front of the TV to watch the Derby undercard, we enjoyed lunch at a restaurant that showed its Derby spirit, even its equestrian friendly vibe all year round.

The restaurant used to be a colonial-era watering hole. The walls display old equestrian photos, ads for – believe it or not – a Percheron breeding farm in the midwest, and English sporting art.

On this Derby Day 2015, we dined in what used to be the tavern’s forge room. The fireplace still exists, complete with an anvil. “Horse brass” doo-dads hang on the soffit above the brick hearth. A vintage ad for different models of English saddles embellished the wall on the other side of the room.

In honor of the big day, female servers wore hats and offered us a special Kentucky Derby menu. We ate Hot Browns and bread pudding with bourbon sauce. Worth every calorie.

I didn’t have the restaurant’s mint julep or its other Derby-themed cocktail because, waiting at home, was a vial of Maker’s Mark 46 packed with fresh mint leaves and left to soak for a week in the fridge. So, for lunch, I had iced tea, “the house wine of the South,” and always an appropriate choice for a mid-day beverage.

Granted, the Connecticut iced tea prompted a “bless their hearts” out of me, but iced tea used to be only seasonal up here, so I half meant it as a real blessing because, gosh darn it, they’re trying.

When we left and said expressed our gratitude to the servers, I also thanked them with a breezy  “have a good Derby” farewell. In and around Louisville, the polite response is, “Same to you,” or  — more likely — “You, too, hon!”

On Saturday in central Connecticut, my parting words resulted in smiling mouths with puzzled looks, but I didn’t care. I was channeling one of those sunny optimists who insists on wishing baffled, harried strangers a “Merry Christmas” all December long.

Later in that afternoon, before I assembled my mint julep, seeing Ashley Judd’s essay gave me “Yes. That” chills, a tear or two, and reminded me people out there do “get it.” Perhaps there are more of us every day?

 

 

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