The Kentucky Derby is touted as being the most exciting two minutes in sports. True, but the Run for the Roses experience goes on for a month. Mint juleps, hot-air balloon races, lawn parties, steamboat races, Kentucky Oaks (the Friday before the “big one” races), riverside concerts, celebrity sightings, private galas and hats. Lots and lots of hats.
Louisville, during the other 11 months, has much to offer. Louisville Waterfront Park reconnects the city to the history of the Ohio River. The Main Street corridor boasts lovely 19th-century cast-iron facades, and contemporary galleries along Market Street showcase an outstanding arts community.
The Seelbach Hilton Hotel, opened in 1905, oozes “golden era” charm and has hosted countless celebrities, including nine U.S. presidents, Al Capone and F. Scott Fitzgerald during his Kentucky bourbon-swilling, expensive cigar-smoking days.
The Grand Ballroom was the inspiration for Daisy and Tom Buchanan’s wedding in The Great Gatsby. For Southern comfort and fine dining, you’ll want to try Jack Fry’s, Porcini, Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse where O.J. Simpson and his entourage were refused service, and Vincenzo’s for marvelous Italian.
I’m not a fashion editor, but I must tell you about my hat. You absolutely have to have a hat for the Kentucky Derby. The bigger, the more lavish, the better. Mine was brown horsehair (appropriate) with brown-tipped white feathers around the wide portrait brim. Suffice it to say, I’ll never wear it again, unless I travel to London for the Ascot races.
I’m also not a food editor, but I feel compelled to share this coveted recipe for mint juleps:
2 tablespoons super-fine sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
24 mint leaves, plus 4 for garnish
2 cups finely crushed ice
1 cup Kentucky bourbon
Combine sugar, lemon juice and mint leaves in a pitcher. Crush with a wooden spoon. Add ice and bourbon. Mix well. Pour into frosted silver cups and garnish with mint.
Legend has it that, on a hot day in 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, accompanied by his chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, arrived at West Point to give the commencement address. Mint juleps were being served. When asked by a waiter if he wanted a second mint julep, MacArthur wisely declined, saying, “No, thank you. I think I’ll stop now while I still know who is president.”
Looming over the whitewashed grandstand, infield and racetrack are the iconic twin spires of Churchill Downs, officially opened in 1875. Betting booths and computers are everywhere, and there’s even a “Millionaire’s Row” floor for those who want to lose big. With so much to take in at the tracks, it’s easy to miss some of the sights inside.
Racing cartoonist Pierre Bellocq, more popularly known as “Peb,” spent a year creating a 36-foot-wide tribute to every jockey who has won the Run for the Roses. Don’t miss this radiant, loving portrayal of racing’s best. Eddie Arcaro, nicknamed “Banana Nose,” won for the first time in 1938. He is tied with the most Kentucky Derby wins at five and is the only jockey to have won the U.S. Triple Crown twice.
Another massive tribute to the derby is Craig Colquhoun’s masterpiece, a 36-foot-long glass rendition of Churchill Downs on race day. It had been a dream of his for years to create this exquisite glass tour de force. Inspired by Princess Diana to “follow his dream,” he completed this not-to-be-missed extravaganza in a little more than a year.
I’ve spent many a first Saturday in May watching the Kentucky Derby on television, and every time the crowd is quieted as the glorious thoroughbreds are marched before the grandstands, as the University of Louisville Marching Band marches forward and more than 10,000 spectators begin singing Stephen Foster’s nostalgic “My Old Kentucky Home” — every single time, a tear or two slides down my cheek.
I’ll tell you — being there in person, standing and watching from the grandstand railing, gazing on the magnificent 3-year-old horses parading below and joining in singing with the exhilarated, fancifully bonneted throngs, it is definitely a two-hankie moment.