Fans wait for the start of the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs Saturday, May 7, 2016, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Julio Cortez
May 07, 2016

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) American Pharoah's journey to racing history a year ago spurred Richie Columbus to make his first trip to Churchill Downs to be part of a near-record crowd for the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

Until Pharoah, horse racing typically drew his attention just once a year, when Columbus watched the Derby on TV. But when Pharaoh galloped across the finish line at the Belmont Stakes to become the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, Columbus was hooked.

''It pretty much brought us here today,'' he said while heading to the Churchill Downs infield. ''We were disappointed we didn't come last year.''

Columbus, who made the short drive from Cincinnati, didn't act like a newcomer to America's most famous horse race. His group arrived when the gates opened and staked out a prime position for its blankets and folding chairs near the fence. Unlike most of the throngs partying in the infield, Columbus' group got a brief view of the horses racing around the track.

For most of the day, fans basked in warm, breezy conditions at the famed track, until a late-afternoon thunderstorm rumbled through Louisville about an hour and a half before the Derby. It produced a brief, heavy rain that soaked fans in the infield, while spectators rushed for cover elsewhere.

Justin Theilman, of Cincinnati, whose shirt was soaked after getting caught in the downpour, said the rain didn't put a damper on the day.

''It felt refreshing,'' he said. ''It's kind of cooled everything down really.''

By race time, the storm had passed and sunshine had returned. The 142nd rendition of the Derby drew a crowd of 167,227, the second-largest in Derby history, to watch Nyquist win the Run for the Roses.

The massive crowd included someone who was just bumped from a different type of horse race - the contest for the presidency.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who ended his Republican presidential campaign earlier in the week, had a panoramic view from an exclusive section high above the track. Cruz said he was just at the Derby to have a good time and declined to be interviewed.

Throughout the track, fans sifted through the field of Derby horses listed on racing forms, hoping to land on Pharoah's successor as a Derby winner.

''American Pharoah did something for horse racing,'' said Jack Bell, who's been coming to the Derby for nearly 40 years. ''Young people don't like horse racing, it's too slow. But they like American Pharoah. He gave it all he had in every race.''

Miss Kentucky, Clark Davis, missed American Pharoah last year. She's keeping her fingers crossed that another horse will make history this year.

Some Derby-goers cared little about history in the making.

Mario Forestier and Joe Musleve chose the Derby for their first reunion in five years. The friends, who met while stationed in the Army at nearby Fort Knox, were sipping their second mint juleps by midmorning as they walked to the infield.

''It's something that I've always wanted to do,'' said Forestier, of Huntsville, Alabama. ''I've heard stories and I think this is going to be like the greatest place ever. It's like our Disney World right here.''

Steve Murow was among Derby fans accessing a mobile app launched by Churchill Downs that's meant to spare them from the long lines as much a Derby staple as colorful hats and sundresses. The app gave fans mobile access to ordering food and drinks and making online bets.

''We can find our spot, relax, save the walk, save the hassle, the bumping into people,'' said Murow, of Orange County, California. He and his wife, Jeanne, were sipping beer and people watching under a shade tree near the paddock.

''It's the Super Bowl, a tailgate, a dress-up special event, Las Vegas, all rolled into one,'' she said.

When American Pharoah won the Derby last year, Peggy Miller came to the track dressed as a mint julep.

This year she arrived dressed as a piece of toast, carrying a sign that said ''a toast to thoro-breads.''

She hasn't missed a Derby in 20 years, and her boyfriend, Tom Barrow, hasn't missed one in more than 40 years.

He hopes the winner of Saturday's race goes on to take the Triple Crown and recreate last year's excitement.

''There's always a shot, there's always hope,'' Barrow said.

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Associated Press writer Claire Galofaro contributed to this report.

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