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Tiptoeing Through the Juleps

May 04, 2003|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky — There is nothing sillier than watching a husband try to push his wife's hat box into the overhead storage bin of a commuter jet. The box does not fit. The wife is not happy. The flight attendant doesn't care. The hat box goes into cargo. The wife cries.

There is nothing sweeter than the smell of horse and hay and apples and dirt and dew and soap before dawn on the backstretch of Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day.

There is nothing more hair-raising than the taste of a mint julep before noon. Bourbon, sugar, mint, ice -- this is not a drink for the faint-hearted or for the light drinker. But the souvenir glass is to be treasured and it does have the names of 128 previous Derby winners. And with a magnifying glass, you can read them all.

There is nothing scarier than taking a program and standing at the betting window if you aren't a regular bettor. How do you ask for an exacta of Atswhatimtalknbout and Buddy Gil for $20 and another exacta of Buddy Gil and Atswhatimtalknbout for $20? And don't ask if you can charge that. Cash only.

There is nothing smellier than the Derby infield. It is not a bad smell. It is the smell of sports -- of beer and pizza, of grilling bratwurst and sun tan lotion. It is the smell of sweaty bodies and dirty feet, of babies needing a diaper change and of Porta Pottis, and of excitement.

The whiff of the horses as they rush by in a breeze. "Who's that?" You hear that a lot in the infield because, truth be told, you don't come to the infield to watch the races. You can't see the horses, except for a peek of a tail or a flash of the jockey's colors.

Some 148,530 fans have come to Churchill Downs on this first Saturday in May to watch, to cheer, to bet, to drink mint juleps and other cocktails, to model the most outrageous headwear or most eye-popping jacket, to meet old friends, to make new friends, to stand at the rail outside the paddock and hope to feel the hot breath of a thoroughbred as it walks by, back straight, ears quivering, heart pumping to run around a track while all 148,530 humans bellow.

This is the 129th running of the Kentucky Derby.

"America's race," trainer Wayne Lukas calls it.

It is the race every horse owner, trainer, rider wants to be in. Even if the horse has no chance. Even if the horse should be carrying children on its back for birthday party rides. Because there is nothing like Derby Day.

On the outside, for the first-time visitor, Churchill Downs can disappoint.

The south-central Louisville neighborhood is filled with small homes with sagging porches, chipped paint, untidy lawns. In the middle of this neighborhood is Churchill Downs and you must be almost at the gate to see the famous twin spires.

"Park here, $20." A boy of about 12 in a tattered T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops holds the sign in one of these front yards. Next door, a woman with a beer in her right hand holds a sign with her left. "Park here, $30." Free enterprise at work. The young boy collects $20 bills, three of them in five minutes. The woman with the beer glares at the young boy.

"Why are you charging $10 more?" a potential customer asks. "I've got a better yard," the woman says, as if it matters. The customer shrugs and gives his money to the boy. The woman spits out an obscenity and waves her sign higher. "Pretty soon people will have no choice," she says. "My yard will be the only one left."

And sure enough, an hour later, the woman, still with a beer in her hand, is taking a $20 and a $10 and her yard, the nicer one, is filling up.

Come inside the gates, though. The world changes immediately.

Churchill Downs is in bloom.

It is a garden of haberdashery, of roses and carnations, of lilies and tulips, marigolds and azaleas, all bursting out of a ground of straw, all planted on tops of the heads of women.

The hat is everything on Derby Day. All the local television channels run Derby Day specials and all the female TV broadcasters have hats. In the lobby of the Marriott is a table filled with unadorned hats and with all the fixin's for the top of the hats. You can customize your bonnet with ribbons and flora and fauna and the keeper of the table cautions women as they leave. "You don't want to go to Churchill Downs with a naked head." It is an excellent sales pitch.

One need only take a couple of steps inside the gate before you breathe in the aroma of bourbon and mint. The mint julep is on sale, from booths, from wandering men carrying the drinks in trays.

According to the book "The Kentucky Mint Julep," written by Col. Joe Nickell, the word "julep" dates from ancient times and derives from the Persian word "gulab," which means "rosewater." These juleps do not taste of rosewater. Or much of anything except bad bourbon and too much sugar. But it is a tradition and that's the thing about the Derby.

Tradition matters.

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