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And they’re off: A look at Kentucky Derby 149

A Derby attendee dressed as a jockey takes a photo while smoking a cigar.
J. Tyler Franklin
A Derby attendee dressed as a jockey takes a photo while smoking a cigar.

Horse racing fans began filling Churchill Downs early Saturday morning in anticipation of the most exciting two minutes.

Last updated at 5:09 p.m.

Other than the world-famous horse race, the Kentucky Derby is known for the flamboyant fashions people bring to the track.

Cimba Johnson of West Virginia was in town with her husband Jim for their second Kentucky Derby.

She was decked out in a cowboy-inspired outfit complete with a brown fringe skirt, while Jim wore matching brown tones and a bolo tie.

A couple dressed in western clothing at the Kentucky Derby
J. Tyler Franklin
Cimba Johnson and her husband Jim

“I know everyone dresses up for the Derby, but that’s just not me,” Johnson said. “I’ve got to be who I am. … This is what my closet is filled with.”

Johnson’s look was one of many standouts early in the day.

Others, like Ronnie Mac from Gary, Indiana, put tons of care into their race day outfits.

Mac was wearing a purple and silver sequined suit that changed colors depending on where the sequins were.

“Last year, I had a gold outfit like this. I wanted to wear the purple today,” Mac said.

A man wears a sequined suit at the Kentucky Derby
Breya Jones
Ronnie Mac came from Gary, Indiana to attend the Kentucky Derby.

He was missing one key part of his ensemble.

“I left my hat, which makes the whole outfit to me, but I have to work with what I got,” Mac said.

Despite missing his hat, Mac was stopped multiple times by passersby complementing his outfit.

“I feel like I’m naked without my hat, but people are telling me it still looks pretty good. I look good in everything,” Mac said.

Just like with outfits, another thing people do in their own unique way is betting.

“We sort of just feel it in the moment,” first-time attendee Liz Ross said. “We just met a jockey’s sister who is running for the first time in the Derby, so we’re definitely going to put a bet on that horse.”

With horses' odds up in the air until race time, many betters might have to lean on spur-of-the-moment encounters like Ross.

An unprecedented five horses were scratched from the race as of Saturday morning, including former favorite, Forte.

Forte’s former jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. will now ride Derby-hopeful Cyclone Mischief in the race.

A man has a beard down to his beltline. It's divided into two strands and died red. He has a colorful red, black and gold jacket and a wild hat that he made himself. He's at Churchill Downs for the 149th Kentucky Derby.
Breya Jones
Garey Faulkner decided to spend his 40th birthday at the Derby with more than 100,000 or his closest friends.

Garey Faulkner, showed off his homemade hat as he wandered through the crowds. This is his eighth year attending, and he said he loves the event and would absolutely recommend it.

“For somebody who has never been to Kentucky Derby, this is one of the best experiences as a person to meet people from all walks of life, from all over the world.”

This year's Derby Day is also Faulkner's 40th birthday.

A man wearing a dark green, short sleeved button up shirt stands in front of a stable. A large pile of hay is visible behind him.
Danielle Kaye
Jesus Canales, who transports horses to Churchill Downs, stand in front of a horse at the back side of the track on Derby Day.

Jesus Canales has been transporting horses to Churchill Downs with the company Sallee Horse Transportation since 2014. He spent Derby day at the backside of the track, alongside horses competing in races leading up to the main event.

The semitrucks Canales drives can fit up to 12 horses each. Back in 2018, Canales transported Justify, the Triple Crown winner that year.

“You see all kinds of stuff at Derby,” Canales said. “All kinds of people – it’s very exciting.”

Kevin Ramaley came from a little north of Philadelphia to attend Derby with some Louisville friends. It’s his first time, and he is a big fan. He said the feeling he got when he saw the first race, up on the rail of the track, was as exciting as the first time he went to a NASCAR race.

“Just breathtaking,” Ramaley said.

So far, Ramaley's been mildly lucky at Derby. He won $25 on Race 4. Oaks Day was not so lucky.

“Yeah, I made about a $470 donation,” he said with a laugh.

A hand holds a stuffed animal, a dog, in front of an escort horse and rider on the track of Churchill Downs.
Courtesy Kevin Ramaley
Since his kids didn't come with him on the trip to his first Derby, Kevin Ramaley brought their beloved stuffed animal, Cookie, to experience some adventures in their stead.

Ramaley has a big family who are all back at home. Since his kids didn’t come, he brought their beloved stuffed animal, Cookie the dog. Cookie got a photo with the pilots on the plane here, got his pilots wings and got a photo with one of the escort riders and horses.

John Sutton Jr. attended his first Kentucky Derby when he was 8 years old. That was in 1940, and he hasn’t missed one since.

That makes Derby 149 his 84th consecutive year attending the race.

Something about horse racing stuck with Sutton after his first Derby.

“I didn't like concerts. I didn't play golf and those kinds of things. I just took a liking to it as a child,” Sutton said.

John Sutton Jr. sits with his grandson Brandon
Breya Jones
John Sutton Jr. attended his 84th Kentucky Derby with his grandson Brandon to mirror his time at track with his father.

His first Derby was a memorable one for many reasons.

“It was very cold and we spent most of the time in the men's room,” Sutton said.

He remembers people running to the paddock area and it growing crowded with people trying to escape the cold. He said it’s the worst weather he’s experienced in Derby.

He also remembers the bet his father placed on Gallahadion.

“My father picked the winner and it beat the odds on favorite,” Sutton said. And that’s what got him hooked.

Year after year Sutton returned to Churchill Downs for the Run for the Roses. He got to see Secretariat make his record-setting run in 1973.

“It just so happened that our position was at the mouth of the tunnel and Secretariat stopped right in front of us,” Sutton said. “He was a beautiful chestnut colt, shone like a new penny and we were just as kind of astounded at his alertness.”

By attending so many Derby races, Sutton has been able to see the changes at the track happen firsthand. With the renovations, Sutton said he hardly knows where at the track he is anymore.

But the biggest change has been in betting, from the cardboard ticket system to the current electronic one.

“Then you had to stand in four, five different lines to get your bet in,” Sutton said.

The renovations and updated technology haven’t taken away from Sutton’s enjoyment of the experience.

“I really don't do anything else, I’ve become a shut-in almost and I look forward to coming here,” Sutton said. “My goal is to come next year to the 150th anniversary.”

This story will be updated throughout the day.

Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.