This article appears in the April 2012 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, visit loumag.com.
A cold, implacable drizzle had turned our palms into soggy prunes by noon. My friends and I were in the Infield as always, on a knoll that slopes, then slightly rises, toward that familiar bank of aqua-colored portable toilets. The slope-then-rise formed a muddy canal that barefoot-shirtless-pantless members of both sexes were using as a Slip ’n Slide. It was as if a giant spackling knife had smeared thick mud onto their 90-percent naked bodies. The mob typically doesn’t start scaling the port-a-potties and charging across their tops, dodging sailing cans of unopened beers, until an hour or so before Derby post time, but already one man — was he dressed like a leprechaun? I think he was dressed like a leprechaun — had attempted to do so, slipping and toppling to the soppy earth. Everybody cheered. Again: noon.
It was 2010, the year Super Saver won in the slop, and at first our group was 11-strong. Four filthy and defeated friends left Churchill Downs a solid two hours before the Derby, unable to walk, not because they were drunk (although they were) but because the slick mud might as well have been a frozen pond. My wife and two others sought shelter in the enclosed Infield club. One guy was off selling “iPonchos” (i.e., plastic baggies) for a buck a pop. That left me with two buddies I’ve known since I was a kid. We had no chairs or blankets, no trash bags doubling as rain slickers. We literally just stood there, our saturated socks making our feet look like our hands. We fought off pneumonia with another round of juleps. I don’t remember how the discussion began, but soon we were talking about our alma mater, Ohio University, with some poncho-wearing folks who’d graduated from the college about two decades before we had. The husky-voiced woman said, “Is the Blue Gator still a bar? I fell down that looong flight of stairs there once and knocked out my front teeth.” The only dry thing I saw all day was the joint they were smoking.
Then, as race time neared, God wanted clear sightlines to Louisville.
The singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” usually doesn’t move me for two reasons: 1) I’m from Cincinnati, and 2) Back in the day, the lyrics included the word “darkies.” But on that afternoon, my favorite Derby memory of all time occurred right as the people began to sing, “The sun shines bright....” Just then, the exhaust-colored sky cracked apart and a yolky sun spilled into the opening. We cheered as if a leprechaun had fallen off a port-a-potty. That was not a tear in my eye. It was a raindrop.
Illustration: Robby Davis