“I feel silly,” I admitted, looking up at the brim of the vintage white had I’d purchased at Pink Door Boutique the day before. My thin hair and the angle of my ears don’t make them a natural fit, so as a rule I don’t do hats.
“You won’t feel silly once you’re at the track,” my boyfriend reassures me as I get into his car. “You look fine.”
He’s right, of course. I look fine. I look better than fine, really. I will go so far as to say I look gussied up. I have never used the term “gussied up” until this week, but it seems appropriate. After all, I have never experienced something quite like this week: my first Kentucky Derby season.
A local invited me to attend Kentucky Oaks, which everyone in Louisville knows about but I had to Google. I graciously accepted and kept my mouth shut when it was explained we’d be hanging out in the infield and would likely never see zero horses, let alone races. In my world, that doesn’t sound like fun, but I’m not in my world. I’m in Kentucky. So I went with it.
Walking down Third Street, I passed Derby season entrepreneurs selling their yards as parking spaces and one unfortunate guy just trying to drive to work. I saw a few gussied up women standing on porches and smiled. This is kind of cute, I thought.
Then, I hit Central Avenue.
The sidewalks were packed with gussied up men and women – big hats, lots of pastels and seersucker as far down the road as I could see. I literally stopped, overwhelmed by this sea of style and purpose. To procrastinate actually stepping foot in Churchill Downs, I buy a $3 burger from some kids raising money for leukemia and lymphoma research. Small talk ensues about the idiot proselytizing across the street. I wonder why all Catholics are going to hell, but I’m not about to ask.
Eventually, I make it to Churchill Downs’ main entrance, also known as Gate 1. People here are taking photos with the iconic twin spires in the background, and an old timey band is playing for tips. This feels regal, and suddenly I feel bad for wearing sandals instead of heels like all the beautiful women here.
Then, I realize I am at the wrong entrance. This is Gate 1 Percent. I have to enter through Gate 3, with the other infielders and their coolers, lawn chairs and sensible shoes. So, like a fish swimming upstream, I walk opposite the immaculately dressed until I approach Gate 3, which is unceremoniously located right next to a PNC bank.
My heart sinks quickly as I realize there is no dress code here. People are wearing cutoff jean shorts, Birkenstocks and football T-shirts for teams that aren’t even in Kentucky. One vendor outside is selling “If you didn’t come to party, take your bitch ass home” T-shirts but most are just selling cans of beer. Admittedly, the dressed up outnumbered the dressed down, but some of the mystique was gone. I probably should have known not all Derby fashion made the In Touch roundups, but alas. Newbie lesson learned.
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.