Pageantry owns the stage at any Kentucky Derby. The wait and the buildup for that pinnacle of racing are like blowing up a balloon until it pops. The pressure is out in the open. It’s there in the proud and the beautiful, there to be seen more than anything else.
Even those persons whose daily jobs send them to look after the most mundane of needs the horses have get excited when the Kentucky Derby comes to Churchill Downs.
At the top of the monetary food chain are the Hollywood types, other entertainment figures, business moguls, Middle Eastern oil sheiks, and politicians of every stripe and public service vein.
Those people come for the parties and the business connections they find in equal amounts.
The parties are either famous or infamous. Some of them have been a ritual for 30 or 40 years. The blonde and winsome Barnstable twins — once sororiety icons at the University of Kentucky — preside over their annual bash. Other Derby parties vie for the likes of George Hamilton IV, Bo Derek, and Smokey Robinson.
Events are planned from mid-week to Friday night . . . and some even carry over their opulence to Saturday night after the race has been run.
Farther down the big bucks chain come the people who plan their vacations around coming to The Derby. They may have to find a motel across the Ohio River in Indiana, but it doesn’t matter. They may not get invites from the Barnstables (now in their 60s), but they find get-togethers at their hotel or motel and blend their strories from races held 30 years ago.
On Derby Day, the track infield is crammed with bodies both nubile and staggering, in like numbers. Maybe 35,000 high school- and college-age students and educational dropouts congregate to drink beer, wear as little clothing as the local authorities will allow, and maybe even pay attention to a race or two during their day-long stay next to the thousands of Port o’ Johns.
The citizens of the city of Louisville wait like crocodiles for the payday that The Derby is to them. Sell souvenirs. Eat your on-the-move meals at our restaurant or fast-food palace. Service stations want your business. Motels, hotels, bed and breakfasts, lots where you can park your eight-axle home-away-from-home, and home owners whose yards can be used as parking lots for only $50 per vehicle.
Those whose job it is to keep the thoroughbreds healthy and happy love the yearly sojourn to Louisville. Grooms, assistant trainers, hot walkers, and the wisened trainers alike find enthusiasm from some untainted well — enthusiasm for The Derby at hand.
Those whose jobs are mostly unseen and always unheralded find the days leading to The Derby exciting and an event to look toward to for some reward.
The stable hands pay attention to the competition. They talk among themselves. Pre-dawn workouts are watched. Their “society” of brothers make bets with a neighbor as to how The Derby might turn out.
And on May 5 of this year there will be a quickness to their step. The thoroughbreds may have a few extra drops of adrenalin in their systems, but they won’t have the corner on energy because their human helpers will also be marching a little closer to 360 steps per minute.
At the Churchill Downs plant itself, the staff will be in place to field every request made for their time or legs to retrieve some liquid elixir. Waiters, waitresses, other food service personnel, parimutuel ticket sellers and cashiers, and valets. Program sellers, elevator operators, part-time bar workers, and custodians.
Security, gate keepers, assistant starters herding the thoroughbreds into the starting gate, and mint julep sellers. Cabbies, go-fers, paddock attendants, bar tenders, and emergency service personnel.
It’s the Kentucky Derby. It comes around only once a year. Variously called “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports”, “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports”, and “The Run for the Roses”, the race is thoroughbred racing’s crowning event.
It brings those on the fringe of racing back to the sport for at least one more fling of enjoyment. It brings the ones with no knowledge of racing in for an hour because they took the thoroughbred with the flamingo pink silks or the alliterative name in the office pool.
The longshot winners like Animal Kingdom, Mine That Bird, Giacomo, and Gato Del Sol fade from memory as quickly as thoroughbred racing loses the interest of the people once it is determined there won’t be a Triple Crown champion.
The sporting world’s interest is there . . . in Louisville . . . at Churchill Downs . . . for just one Saturday afternoon . . . for just one all-consuming race. And that race will be run this Saturday. Giving us another four-legged, sculpted picture of controlled grace and power that just might win the 2012 Triple Crown.