Churchill Downs somehow manages to be both timeless and anachronistic. Yes, it now has a set of thickly carpeted luxury suites and the famous twin spires have been refurbished more than Bruce Jenner’s face, but visiting the grounds still feels like you’ve stepped into a time machine that could drop you off anywhere between the late 19th century and the middle of last week.
One of America’s most recognizable rooflines was built in 1895, which means it shares a birthday with Babe Ruth, predates college basketball and was well past menopause by the time the construction crews broke the frozen tundra to start building Lambeau Field. Maybe that’s why the Kentucky Derby feels like it should come with an oil painting instead of a commemorative program.
That's also why I tend to ignore the beginning of April and Jim Nantz’ hushed Masters voiceovers; the 138-year-old Derby is the event that deserves to be reverently whispered about and described as an American tradition unlike any other.
Not convinced? Help me peel the wax off this new bottle of Maker’s Mark and let’s look at 20 reasons — one for each saddled and stirruped thoroughbred in Saturday’s field — why Derby Day, along with the fanfare and bugle blasts and gallons and gallons of mint-spiked bourbon that precede it, is one of the greatest sporting events ever, period.
1) Although the winner hasn’t finished under 120 seconds since Monarchos in 2001, the “most exciting two minutes in sports” tagline is well earned. Two minutes in hockey is one team’s post-hooking power play. The two-minute warning in the NFL reminds you you’re still several Coors Light commercials from halftime. And two minutes isn’t enough time for Nick Swisher to step in and out and in and out and in and out of the batters’ box and out again to rearrange his sleeves and in and out to adjust his helmet AND THE RACE IS OVER WE HAVE A WINNER.
3) This is the only situation where you can get caught up in two minutes of furious activity then ask “Was that it?” without hurting someone’s feelings.
4) At least one person in your viewing party will be visibly confused when they see announcer Randy Moss.
5) The crowd singing “My Old Kentucky Home” is the greatest drunken karaoke since your trashiest cousin’s wedding reception. I can’t get enough closeups of glassy-eyed socialites with satellite-dish sized hats pretending to know what word is going to rhyme with “cabin floor.”
6) The contrast between Millionaire’s Row — filled with diamond-encrusted patrons who use "equestrian" as an adjective and make Mitt Romney look like a minimum-wage grocery bagger — and the Solo-cup toting masses that pack themselves into the infield. “I suggested that we should probably spend some time in the infield, that boiling sea of people across the track from the clubhouse,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote. “To get there, we had to pass through many gates, each one a step down in status, then through a tunnel under the track. Emerging […] was such a culture shock that it took a while to adjust.”
8) Some of the horses could retire following June’s Belmont Stakes, which means they could spend upwards of the next two decades doing nothing but hanging out, meeting willing Lady Ponies and making babies. In non-equestrian circles, this is known as “Cromartie-ing."
9) Hats, hats, HAAAAATS! If you have access to a glue gun, some ribbon and can reach your own head, you’d damn well be wearing something the size of a Jacuzzi on it.
10) It’s totally acceptable to place a bet based on the horse’s name. This year, I’m putting money on my fave ‘To Catch a Predator’ pedo-trapper (Hansen), a Google translation gone wrong (Went The Day Well) and my favorite strip mall Mexican restaurant (El Padrino).
11) Hey, can you give me another splash of bourbon?
12) It’s the one Saturday night where it’s not only acceptable but expected for you to Google “Remove gravy stains from Lilly Pulitzer dress.”
13) I appreciate the fact that Kentucky and horse racing are as inseparable as the forks of the Cumberland River. They put horses on their state quarters, in their tourist-attracting logo and on their license plate above the words ‘Unbridled Spirit.' Not even Jack Woltz saw this many horse’s heads.
14) You can carry a racing form in your back pocket and feel like the dad in every 1950s coming-of-age story ever.
15) The Derby kicks off the Triple Crown, which means the winning horse will be led from the track wearing a blanket of roses and a stack of question marks, typically following the statement ‘Will he be the next Affirmed?’ The answer, at least for the past 33 years, has been no.
16) I can use that muddler that has been in the drawer since last May.
17) The winner receives a three-pound, solid gold trophy and a blanket of roses that weighs 40 pounds. This is also what you get if you spend a night with Kanye West.
18) Not a single reporter will openly flirt with the horses, during a cringeworthy interview that ends with the question “Do you think I’m pretty?"
19) It’s nice to have an annual reminder that Nick Lachey still exists.
20) Even the long shots start the race with a chance.
But, yeah, it’s mainly the bourbon.
Most of the discussion in the aftermath of Oxbow's Preakness victory involved either explaining away why Orb lost or downplaying why Oxbow won. But Oxbow was plenty impressive.
Trainer Shug McGaughey is still thinking Belmont Stakes for his Kentucky Derby winner after Orb galloped a mile Thursday morning at Belmont Park.