The most common responses I received when telling people that I was going to the Kentucky Derby this year were, “are you wearing a hat?” “what does your hat look like?” “send photos of your hat!”
While it’s a hat-centric event, it is also so much more. I had no idea what I was in for when I booked my ticket to Louisville for my first Derby, but Churchill Downs’ 145th Kentucky Derby did not disappoint.
Unfortunately, there are no direct routes from Seattle to Louisville, meaning I had an early morning flight. After making my way to Dallas, I was surprised to already see so many Derby hats at DFW, many of whom ended up on my plane to Louisville. The flight attendants announced they had extra bourbon for anyone who wanted a Mint Julep, but without any mint or simple syrup on board, their interpretation was just bourbon… on the rocks.
While walking through the Louisville airport, I was surprised to see a Churchill Downs store, two women dressed in Derby attire (yes, hats included!) handing out Bourbon balls as I walked past a photo wall of mint, a horse statue, and jockey jerseys hanging from every gate. I quickly realized just how big the event I was attending would be; if this was the airport, I couldn’t imagine what the rest of Louisville looked like. My taxi driver on the way to my hotel talked about the Derby while I looked at all the Derby-focused billboards that lined the freeway. After arriving to a hotel lobby filled with a “Welcome Derby Guests!” sign, roses and horse racing decorations, I made my way to my room only to find a welcome bag with MORE Bourbon balls and a commemorative Derby 145 glass. Phew! It was a long travel day, but I was thankful for the bursts of energy through my sugar-filled Bourbon balls.
Did you know that the Derby is not just a one-day event? It’s more like a weekend. It starts with Thurby (Thursday Derby). I woke up early, excited to venture into Churchill Downs, and kickoff my work on kentuckyderby.com. The scale of Churchill Downs was really astounding – I had seen photos, but could not have imagined just how big the grounds really are. It’s beautiful and the history is tangible the second you walk through those gates. Thurby felt calm, nothing too crazy. There were great hats, and lots of humans, but I was assured that it was nothing compared to Oaks.
The pink that floods the Kentucky Oaks is really astounding. I learned that the pink was to symbolize strength and femininity. It felt like the number of people doubled from Thurby and the energy was also much more tangible. The Oaks was a great opportunity to work out all the kinks in our process in preparation for the Derby. Behind the scenes, it was a little crazy. Photographers were coming to my desk nonstop and I felt a little behind.
The day I’d been waiting for. One of our main jobs at the Derby is keeping kentuckyderby.com updated throughout the whole event. Just getting off the media bus, I could tell there was something different in the air. The lines were already long, the outfits were so much more extravagant than the past two days. We walked in behind the legendary jockey Pat Day and immediately went into the Parlay where photographers and press were buzzing around. I went to my station to set up everything just as I had it the day before. Honestly, I was a little nervous. If Oaks was crazy, what should I expect from Derby?
Somehow, the Derby was calm. We had worked out all our kinks during the Oaks and our workflow was smooth. I walked around to take it all in and stretch my legs on occasion and each time I walked outside of the press box, the energy was the same. It was beautiful – the fashion, the smiles, the photos, the excitement, the booze – and it was relentless. I made my way back into the Parlay for dinner before the big race. I listened as they sang “My Old Kentucky Home” the song I was told would surely make me cry. I believe my adrenaline was pumping too fast to even register any emotion other then excitement. The race started and I anxiously watched as Maximum Security took the lead and won the race… or did he?