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Quintessential Derby Day: a cat, bird, and a bet

I had the quintessential Derby day this year full of stories, loss, drunkeness, celebrities, excitement and even a scam artist in the mix. For the last 13 years for Derby I've worked as a production assistant for Donna Lawrence Productions who produces "The Greatest Race" film for the Ky. Derby Musuem. My job is to provide a little extra security for the camera crew, place their bets, get them food or snacks, schlep equipment & go retrieve needed items from the main office while they stay with the gear, etc.  We arrive at the track around 7am and leave around 8pm. It's a very long day but as James Bickers would say "gooder than hell!".

"Quintessential" is the word I'm using this year because it makes me feel better about the late night scam that took place at the end of the day. After all the festivities but before exhaustion can fully set in, the tradition has been to reward ourselves with dinner at Jack Frys. All day long everybody is partying their brains out around us so after the work is done it's our turn to party a bit and party we did. In fact we shared one of the best bottles of red I've ever had with the fitting title of "Gluttony". I'm not kidding, that really was the name of the wine! We swapped many stories of the day with our dining companions, still marveling at the huge upset by Mine That Bird and celebrating the fact that two of us at the table won big on that horse. I wasn't one of them I'm sad to say but my dinner was paid for by my friend who won the exacta on that race. Thank you Kay for a wonderful meal, by the way.  I'd like to say we had dinner with Brooke Shields and chef Bobby Flay which is kinda the truth but we never met them and they were at tables far away from us. We almost had dinner with the large party behind us where two guys got into a near brawl because their food and drink definitely would have landed on us should that have happened. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed and the men were separated from each other.

After our delicious meal and dessert we all went our separate ways and Kay and I walked happily down Bardstown Road to where our car was parked. That's when this guy approached us with his hooky line of "Are you from around here because I need some help." Oh yes we are and how can we help you? The story had lots of details and odd numbers and involved a stranded car and just a few dollars short of a towing fee and we were just inebriated,  happy and vulnerable enough to help. We didn't give him much but I had the feeling we were being taken and sure enough we were. When we got into our car and pulled out into traffic there he was again approaching some woman and her dog and we heard him say "Are you from around here..?" We yelled at the woman to not give this guy anything, we had already helped him and she ran off with her dog, thankfully. No, we didn't get our money back but we saved one poor soul who he might have conned if we hadn't wised up quick and caught him in the act again.

That whole thing with the con artist really bugged me until Kay said "Oh well, just chalk it up as the quintessential derby day." And she was right. It really was so Derby-ish from start to finish. The night before we joked about placing a bet on Mine That Bird for our cat Milo who is obsessed with birds because really, the cat had as good of a chance at winning as we did and sure enough he won! Derby morning Kay gave her usual spiel to the crew with how the day was supposed to go but stated the most important thing was that somebody win big this year and darnit if it wasn't her that would do just that with her exacta bet. The rest of us lost money all day with maybe a couple of small bets to win now and then. There was the usual crowd of people dressed to the nines with ladies in their beautiful hats poking the eyes out of everybody next to them with their oversized feathers and the guys in their fancy suits with foot-long cigars hanging from their mouths. There is always a couple of people with outrageous hats that steal the show such as one man with a near replica of the track with horses running around it on top of his head. There's the beer vendor who keeps yelling "Last call!" for about an hour before we realize maybe this is a marketing ploy of some kind? There's the box of drunk people next to us, leaning on our equipment with their Mint Juleps about to spill on our gear and yelling "Wooo! Party! Yeah!" and I'm forced to physically remove the drunk girl's arm from our cart after she indeed does spill some of her drink on it. For the next 10 minutes she yells at the back of my head slurring "I wasn't leaning on your sh*t!" I look at her and she bobs and weaves in circles unable to focus her evil eye gaze at me while she repeats this stupid mantra. There's King Michael Jordan who briefly waves to the crowd from the Millionaire's Row balcony and everybody goes nuts then he quickly disappears. There's the National Anthem sung by Lee Ann Rimes who nails it by the way and everybody stops partying for a second to put their hands over their hearts. Then there's the parade of trainers, owners and horses as they make their way from the Backside to the Paddock and the excitement starts to build to epic proportions. "My Old Ky. Home" is sung and gets really loud on the "weep no more my Ladies" part which never fails to get me choked up. Nobody is sitting down anymore and you feel the swell of the crowd push towards the rail with anticipation as the horses are entered into the gates. Then the race is on and people are screaming their heads off as if by doing this their horse will surely win. We watch the thundering herd go by, the camera guys in sharp focus at this point, when here comes another horse at the very end with the number 8 on his pink silk blanket. Somebody says "There must be something wrong with that horse he's going so slow!" Another says "That horse shouldn't even be in this race!" We watch them go around the track and as they make their way down the final stretch here comes that dang number 8 horse out of nowhere in front of everybody else by at least a couple of lengths! What the hell? There is silence from the crowd as people are completely stunned! Nobody has this horse!

But then I remember Kay placed a bet for Milo on Mine That Bird. She won! Or rather the cat won! Unbelievable! Jockey Calvin Borel circles back around and tears are streaming down his happy face and it is a moment of pure joy for him and you can't help but be moved by it and happy for him too even as you are tearing up your now useless tickets and throwing them on the sticky whiskey-soaked ground, keenly aware that when I looked at the program earlier I never even glanced at number 8 but should have. Oh well. 

We pack up our gear and move with the throngs of drunken souls making their way to the exits, trying hard to avoid clipping someone's heel with our cart or poking somebody's rear end with the tripod. We make it back to the office where Kay has scored a couple of watered down mint juleps and some roses from the Winner's circle and treat ourselves to a couple of ice cold beers to celebrate another wonderful but exhausting Derby in Louisville, Kentucky. And yes, it was the quintessential Derby day.

(all photos by K. Milam)

Laura is the afternoon host from 3-6 pm weekdays. Email Laura at lshine@lpm.org