Once inside Churchill Downs, it’s unnecessary hollering through a creepy tunnel leading to a slew of activities that don’t seem worth recanting in much detail. I shell out $11 for an Oaks Lily in a souvenir glass. It’s delicious but weak. It’s also $11 shy of the most I’ve ever paid for a novelty drink. (That honor stays in Las Vegas.) I drink lemonade. My desert roots show and I almost pass out from the Kentucky heat, but a kind stranger hands me a bottle of cold water. I see a horse, though it wasn’t a racing one. I place my first bet based off the horse name I liked best – and promptly lose. (Stupid Gung Ho!) I lay in the grass, cherished the breeze, chatted and checked Twitter. Every so often, the call to post sounds, and I watch the box stands fill for two minutes of shouting at something I couldn’t see.
“See? They’re doing it right,” I comment to my Oaks companion.
My sentiment is proven true two hours later when a looming storm forces an evacuation of the infield. Like cattle we are herded out. Walking toward the tunnel, people in the stands above are taking photos of us with their cell phones. I curse them silently before telling the woman behind me there’s nothing I can do help her claustrophobic friend.
On the windy, wet journey home, I consider my first Oaks and the two weeks of festivities leading up to it. The experience was enjoyable, yes, but hardly the best thing ever. I could explain it away as saying I wasn’t drunk enough, but that seems a copout. I guess I just don’t get it yet.
Someone explained it to me as something seeped in tradition that has taken a life of its own, which makes me think I’ll understand only after a few years of letting the Kool-Aid soak my brain. Another described it as “a spring festival of sorts.” This seems more accurate, but I cannot help but wish we’d all just celebrate spring for all its natural glory.
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