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    As a kid, the first Saturday in May meant pulling small slips of paper from a cup. My younger brother and I would alternate grabbing the tiny folded pieces snipped from the morning newspaper. We watched the race on our giant box of a television, snacking on chips and popcorn, crossing our fingers for the prize — $20 from Mom’s purse.

    Most of my Derbytime memories are of my mother: helping me glue small plastic horses to the brim of a cap; chasing hot-air balloons in the car, zigzagging through streets. The balloons had been our tradition ever since my mom could tow me in a wagon from our old house to the Fairgrounds and through the back gate, eventually closed by a padlocked chain that rusted long ago.

    Photo: The author with her dad in spring 1990.

    Up until I graduated middle school, my father worked a lot during meets at Churchill Downs, every other weekend from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., roughly late April to the Fourth of July and again from Halloween to Thanksgiving. He followed in the footsteps of his father, who over the course of half a century missed only two Derbies, when he was a soldier during the Korean War. 

    My father controlled the sound at Churchill Downs. Beginning in 1941, Currie Sound set up and maintained the speakers in Millionaires Row, the microphones for the announcers and the wires and cords in between. His job was waiting, sometimes hours, for something to break. His headquarters were more like a closet, with sound equipment consuming shelves, a solitary toilet in the back corner, a TV with bunny-ear antenna and a small fridge. Derby Day itself was a nail-biting kind of boredom — waiting and waiting, then jumping into action, running to a sound emergency like moving through water, more bodies than space inside Churchill. His stories of Derbies past are muddled, clouded by the 15 years that have passed since Churchill automated much of what he did and didn’t renew the Currie Sound contract. He remembers a quickly extinguished fire of unknown origin in the grandstand; a drunk contained in an impromptu holding cell made of fencing, guarded by 10 officers; streakers sprinting across the dirt, barely missing the hooves of the racehorses, barely missing shattered bones.

    My father would haul us to the track on non-Derby days — my brother and me cross-legged in the bed of his truck with boxes of tools and wires, pretending we were smuggled in. I remember this quiet game but don’t recall my fingers sticky with glue at Churchill Charlie’s Clubhouse or my father taking us through a tunnel where we could pet horses.

    At home, my mother would count the time by the races, 30 minutes between each, calculating my father’s arrival time. I stood on tiptoes at the large dining room window, spying over the sill, waiting for his white truck to show up from the left.

    When he’d finally return home, hours after the most exciting two minutes in sports, he’d relieve my mother of what she called her “single-mom duties” and hand her a rose he’d plucked from the winner’s circle display. 

    This originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Cover: Currie Sound on Barret Avenue in the '70s.

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    Jennifer Kiefer's picture

    About Jennifer Kiefer

    Germantown transplant. Louisville native.

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