The Kentucky Derby has forever been dubbed “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” and Churchill Downs is easily one of the most historic sporting venues in North America. But the nickname and common knowledge forgets the 10 hours before those exciting two minutes and the people who fill the venue.
It was something more than the 124.5 seconds it took for Justify to win the Derby, more than the Twin Spires watching over the saddling paddock where I stood for five hours in the rain. It was something intangible – something I still can’t put my finger on – that made Derby Day as magical as it was.
Let’s be clear – I’ve been obsessed with horses since I was seven, so I know racehorses should run one-eighth of a mile in 12 seconds. When I was nine, I cried because I had grown too tall to be a jockey, so I know the average height of the riders this year was around five feet. And, sometime in elementary school, my mom and I turned on the TV on the first Saturday of May and watched the “Run for the Roses” for the first time, so the excitement of the Kentucky Derby was not lost on me.
But there’s only so much you can read, watch and hear about the Derby.
Those shots of fans in colorful dresses, suit-jackets and atrocious hats in the grandstand forget the masses who paid for general admission tickets. They forget those who have just as much, if not more, fun trekking through the wet grass of the infield nursing their fifth $14 mint julep.
The online analysis of Kentucky Derby horses and the racing programs that bettors pore over can’t adequately detail the rippling muscles of the two- and three-year-old fillies and colts as they walk from the barns to the paddock. They can’t describe the sheer athleticism of the horses quite literally thundering past you on the turf field when you stand watching at the infield fence.
Those books detailing the history and architecture of Churchill Downs will never be able to capture the feeling of standing at that infield fence, looking over your shoulder at the Twin Spires. It’s impossible to write how it feels to walk with the ghosts of horse racing greats, through a venue built 144 years ago.
The six-hour NBC Sports pre-race coverage can’t prepare you for the audible desperation of owners, riders and horses as races are run throughout the day. They don’t show the crumpled betting tickets on the ground and they don’t play the amateur cries of, “Come on number four!” or the more experienced suggestions of, “Let him out now, Mike” directed toward the live-feed screens that are always in your field of vision.
The after-race close-ups of winning horse, rider and trainer can’t convey the excitement of more than 157,000 people becoming part of history. The close ups of wealthy owners don’t show the older gentleman who offered me a dry rain poncho as I was standing in my white outfit under a fan drying out between races. They don’t show you the drunk woman good-heartedly calling to me and my three friends, “You look like condoms!” as we marched back into the rain with our poncho hoods up.
And, those close ups certainly can’t show you the overwhelming feeling of happiness and contentedness filling nearly everyone, even on the wettest Kentucky Derby in 100 years. I can count on one hand the number of people who were not thoroughly enjoying themselves amidst the relentless rain.
And, if you envision those little girls holding their mom’s or dad’s hands as they walk through Churchill Downs and experience the Kentucky Derby for the first time, you probably don’t think of all the little horse-obsessed girls in 21-year-old bodies. You don’t think of the three college juniors who had been dreaming of going to the Derby for 10 years and who had been planning the trip for three. You don’t think about those girls marching through Churchill Downs for eight hours in the rain, trying to make sure their inner seven-year-olds are satisfied with their experience.
There’s something intangible about watching the “Run for the Roses” for the first time at Churchill Downs, something I still can’t explain. But, that’s what magic is — something you can’t see, hear or read about, but something you have to experience to fully understand.