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And we're off

Grab your fancy hat and Racing Form. The Kentucky Derby is horse racing's top event, and the down-home party lasts for weeks.

April 30, 2006|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

Louisville, Ky. — THE big-brimmed, black spring hat is a family heirloom. It's made of heavy woven straw and has a turned-down rim and a flirty grosgrain-ribbon bow.

The Hat belonged to my mother. She grew up in Louisville, home of the Kentucky Derby, but could never afford to attend the race. She and Dad moved to California a few years after they married, and the big black hat came with them.

Last year, when I was lucky enough to go to the Derby, the vintage hat returned with me for Kentucky's big annual celebration.

Louisville -- natives pronounce it Loovul or Loowevul -- pulls out all the stops on Derby Day, the first Saturday of May, when a select group of 3-year-old Thoroughbreds is loaded into the starting gates at Churchill Downs for the Run for the Roses. The city parties for two weeks in anticipation of the two-minute race.

Hats are a big part of the festivities. When I told female friends I was going, the first thing they asked was, "Do you have your hat yet?" Male friends slapped me on the back, and said, "Put a bet down for me." So yes, betting is of consequence too, along with pounding hoofs, a roaring crowd and more than 100 years of Americana.

It's a good time for visitors to get acquainted with Southern hospitality, Kentucky-style. That means fine bourbon, fast horses and a gracious welcome by hosts who are so polite their good manners seem foreign to non-Southerners.

"You can tell Northerners are in town for the race," my Kentucky cousin Carla Brawner said on Derby Day last year. "They're so rude."

She had just been jostled for the third time while trying to walk through a crowd outside a restaurant. "A Southerner would apologize," she fumed. "Northerners just ram into you and keep on walking."

Of course, the Derby draws more than Northerners. More than 156,000 people from around the world attended last year. They got a look at the results of a three-year, $121-million renovation at Churchill Downs that added luxury suites and new public and private areas to the racetrack. There was criticism that the new design diminished the importance of the racetrack's famous 101-year-old Twin Spires, but in general, people seemed pleased with the update.

Attending the 2005 Derby -- I covered it as a member of the press -- gave me a chance to walk the streets of the town where my parents grew up, revive family connections and learn a little about the spectacle that entrances this community every spring.

"For a race enthusiast, Louisville is heaven," said local TV news anchor Caton Bredar, a former Los Angeles resident and granddaughter of Hall of Fame jockey Ted Atkinson. "Racing's not important in L.A.; it's just one of many things available. Here, racing embraces every aspect of the community. And this time of year is like no other."

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On Millionaires Row

A few days before the Derby, I poked around renovated areas of Churchill Downs, seeing Millionaires Row -- a special area of the track reserved during Derby weekend for wealthy or well-connected fans -- and luxurious interior boxes with computerized betting screens and video race monitors.

There would be some big names in these seats and in other elite areas of the clubhouse a few days later. Last year's Derby -- which surprised everyone when 50-1 longshot Giacomo galloped into history as the 131st winner -- drew celebrity billionaires Donald Trump and Richard Branson.

Haven't bought your ticket yet for Saturday's race? Join the crowd. Reserved-seat tickets for the world's most famous horse race range from $75 to $600 but are nearly impossible to get; they're sometimes held in families for decades. Visitors without tickets can do as Louisville residents do and find other ways to celebrate. Everywhere I went last year, I heard people greeting one another with: "Have a happy Derby." They were high on the spirit of the event, flying flags in their yards and planning parties at home.

This year's celebration started a week ago when the nation's largest fireworks show, "Thunder Over Louisville," kicked off the Derby party season. Among other activities: a hot-air balloon race, charity balls, a parade. Two steam-driven paddle-wheelers, the Belle of Louisville and its archrival the Delta Queen, will race down the Ohio River on Wednesday, with on-board tickets selling for $126. The Kentucky Oaks, a race for 3-year-old fillies, is held the day before the Derby and draws many locals.

Another well-known advance event is Dawn at the Downs, which I took in last year, paying $25 to watch Thoroughbreds exercise as the rising sun began to warm the chilly air at Churchill Downs. The event, scheduled this year for Monday through Thursday, included a breakfast of scrambled eggs, grits and country ham at a clubhouse restaurant. Then I leaned out over the balcony rail, watching the horses' steamy breath as they flew by. If I had watched more carefully, perhaps I would have won one of last year's $9,814 exactas.

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Kentucky's finest

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