Longing for Louisville on Derby Day

Filed in Horse Racing by on December 9, 2010

“Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks, getting angrier and angrier as they lose more and more money. By midafternoon they’ll be guzzling mint juleps with both hands and vomiting on each other between races. The whole place will be jammed with bodies, shoulder to shoulder. It’s hard to move around. The aisles will be slick with vomit; people falling down and grabbing at your legs to keep from getting stomped. Drunks pissing on themselves in the betting lines. Dropping handfuls of money and fighting to stoop over and pick it up”
-Hunter S. Thompson, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved

I have always felt a natural affinity for Kentucky even though I have only on the rarest of occasions seen the sun shine bright on the place they call the Bluegrass State. Kentuckians seem to have a sense of fun and keenness for a grand time that is missing in most places and fun junkies like me are drawn to such types. The fun is ego-driven and class structured but it is without pretension and once a mint julep has been downed then everyone is your friend and anyone could be your enemy. These are my kind of people and whenever I hear the twang of “My Old Kentucky Home”, a banjo weeps in my heart and I cannot help but feel that some previous life was spent running amok in Louisville and Lexington and everywhere in between. I am a kindly Southern Gentleman at heart. There are plenty of straw boaters, shoe string ties and light-coloured linen suits in the wardrobe and plenty of whiskey in the belly. There is a general reverence of leisure and fun that doesn’t exist in most places. Whiskey, women, wagering. Kentuckians are my natural people.

If it weren’t for the oppressive heat, my own personal fear of hillbillies and the lack of rugby league (though I do believe Kentuckians would embrace the high-minded ideals of the game) Making The Nut would be sent through from the front porch of the Victorian Gothic-style Old Louisville home of your jaunty author.

It is a great shame that I will not be in Louisville this week, which will surely mean that another year will pass before the opportunity to head to Kentucky arrives. I have business to take care of in Kentucky involving my application to become an honorary Kentucky Colonel but this will seemingly have to wait. And it is lucky for Governor Steve Beshear that this is the case because who knows what is liable to happen when there is a Colonelship on the line and craziness in the air and a weird Australian writer demanding access to time honoured titles and the clubhouses of the local gentry. The possibilities range from me being held along side Harland Sanders as one of the celebrated sons of The Commonwealth through to a vicious stomping that would leave me battered, bleeding and without cash and in all likelihood, incarcerated for an indefinite period of time.

No, the trip to Louisville will have to wait until 2009 when the Punting Ace hierarchy will fund an all-expenses trip to the Derby for their most destructive wordsmith. This year the first week of May will be spent enjoying the Indian summer of My Year and considering, at great length, matters of immense import.

Come the low hours of Sunday morning, however, I will be longing for Louisville. And the likelihood of finding a mint julep in these parts is not the side of a proposition you would like to have taken the evens on. Barkeeps in these parts tend to have the bourbon, the sugar and the water on hand but not too many keep mint within reach. When they run for the roses this year, I will be in some rundown all-night and all-day bar with washed out jakeys and hard headed thugs and aging whores with more than one habit, a group known as “The Morning Crew”, and I will be leaning over a double whiskey and aching for the decadency and depravity of the scene in Louisville.

There is nothing like the Kentucky Derby and come Sunday morning there is no place I would rather be than Churchill Downs. It is, in the words of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, “a fantastic scene- thousands of people fainting, crying, copulating, trampling each other and fighting with broken whisky bottles”. There are some fairly handy horses running around as well. It is the Melbourne Cup crossed with the four-in-the-morning frivolity had in such fine establishments as the Coogee Bay Hotel and Mooseheads. The Derby is drinking and gambling and fighting and the home for all the vices. All the ones that matter, at any rate. All are welcome and all partake and it is low rent fun until sobriety hits and the plane leaves Louisville Airport sometime on Monday.

The Kentucky Derby is also the only race that Americans really care about. They can be suckered into the Preakness if there was a dominant Derby winner and the Belmont if the Triple Crown is on the line and even Breeders Cup Day if promoted right. But that is it. Horse racing is not entrenched as an event for the socialites in American culture. The sport is, for the most part, not romanticized and the culture of the game is certainly not as revered as it is in Australia and in Europe. It isn’t widely accepted as being a mainstream activity with anti-gambling moralist attitudes, derived from America’s puritanical roots, forcing most racehorse punters to the fringes and the subterranean. The racetrack tends not to attract young partygoers or families or females of any description. It is the die-hards, Runyon type characters with names like No Knees Napper and Last Race Larry, who whittle away their time at usually out-of-the-way racetracks. For the most part, the American Racetrack is not a place to be seen at.

The Kentucky Derby is different. It has the historical aura of the Melbourne Cup and the wowsers are usually drowned out by the sound of fun. It has immense relevance to the racing, gambling and breeding industries as well as most Kentuckians who accept it as a must-attend event. Even mainstream organisations embrace the race and the day.

An event of such grandiosity, of such importance, of such debauchery is an event that, with little doubt, suits my sensibilities and penchant for interesting times.

This year, however, they will run without me. The linen suits will be stored away until next summer and I will watch the race from the other side of the world with a surly disinterested barman and whatever associates remain keen for the dawn.

There will, of course, be heavy wagering.

The smart money will be on the elegantly named Big Brown. Bookmakers on at least two continents will find that out in due course. Big Brown is the race favourite and it is a deserved favouritism as he will be streaking to victory and collecting the roses this weekend. He will be bet heavily by this author. He is undefeated in his three starts and his three wins have been absolutely astonishing. In his first two starts, one as a two year old in September last year and one on March 5 this season, he has nearly lapped his opposition, winning by 11 ¼ lengths and 12 ¾ lengths respectively. He then came out and won the grade one Florida Derby by five lengths against a quality field. The Florida Derby has been one of the best lead-up events to the Kentucky Derby in recent years with Barbaro, Monarchos, Thunder Gulch and Unbridled all taking the double since 1990. Big Brown will be ridden by Kent Desormeaux, who has won two Kentucky Derbies and states that Big Brown is the best horse he has ridden. He is trained by Richard Dutrow, who is one of the biggest names in U.S racing and a mentor who has won more than his share of big races. At the 5/2 on offer, he is one of the best Derby bets you will ever hope to see. Some books have him 9/2 to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 and the task is not beyond him. He looks a superstar of the highest order.

The challengers are far from same. Colonel John has never raced on the dirt before and that is too big a query to take the short odds on. Pyro was awful in the Bluegrass Stakes after a Louisiana Derby win. And the rest appear severely outclassed.

Big Brown will have my money. He should, of course, have yours too.

And when he races to victory we can all sing with joy “Weep no more my lady, oh weep no more today, we will sing one song for the old Kentucky home, for the Old Kentucky Home far away”.

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