In Louisville during Kentucky Derby Week the horses are fast and the town even faster, flush with freewheelers and rowdy prancing. The merry-go-round of festivities is recorded in script and sketches by Artist W.C. Park. His is a gently satirical commentary on this spring pageant—the circus of sideshows, the swilling crowds and the swelling frenzy that rises to a pitch with the parade to the post of the classic colts and the sentimental singing of "My Old Kentucky Home."
WHEEDLE-TOODLE-POOPA-CHUNKA strains a calliope as the two partly paddlewheelers, groaning under heavy loads of frenetic frolickers swing into their traditional race up the Ohio, and full into Derby Week.
The days preceding that fateful first Saturday in May are stuffed to bursting with a mélange of parades parties presentations burgoo picnics bicycle races fireworks displays mint juleps (get your fresh mint here!) jug bands bourbon and...oh yes, horse racing. Horse racing indeed, for all this activity is but a fitting buildup to that most phantasmagorical race in the sport of kings:
The Kentucky Derby.
Although cast upon by some as the Disneyland of horse racing, the Derby (you mean there are others?) cannot be dismissed lightly. All the hooplah and kadoo that surround the race do nothing to tarnish "the most glittering jewel in the Triple Crown", an 3-year-olds' season; it packs champions and absolute dogs into a very large field, and is thereby wildly unpredictable; and it is the beginning of the glory road to the fabulous Triple Crown, that most coveted honor in horse racing.
Throughout the week , cars, people and money pour into Louisville, while out at the stables there is unnatural calm. Majestic, finely tuned horses are pampered and primed by an adoring assemblage of grooms, ponyboys, hotwaters and hangers-on. Trainers are in complete control (I don't let nobody but girls rub the horses; they got a gentle touch); most owners wisely stay out of the way. People working with horses are a mixed bag. Some have college degrees, some are wealthy, some lean on the bottle; the common denominator is an absolute worship of horses.
And now it is Saturday, and there is that venerable old palace of fun and chance, Churchill Downs. Buy your ticket and surge though the turnsty into a world bedecked with pennants, dreams and memories. It is Never-Never Land, with landscaping right out of the Wizard of Oz; a fantasy of bright flowers, fountains and neatly barbered bushes. Strong-lunged vendors hawk tout sheets and the omni-present mint julep, and thither, staring at their programs or hypnotized by the rapidly blinking tote boards.
Racetime approaches, and the milling steps up. Long lines form and re-form at the mutuel windows, and as the horses are led out to the starting gate there is a mad scramble to place one more bet. And then they're off, and the crowd begins to fidget and nervously gabble. By the time the horses are in the home stretch, the spectators have become a wild mob, flinging binoculars and mint juleps about recklessly, and emitting an ever-increasing cacophony of shrieks shouts groans and ear-splitting squeals. The noise peaks as the horses flash across the finish line, and immediately slumps into instant analysis, grashing of teeth, and an occasional shout of triumph. Losers' tickets flutter down like confetti from the upper tiers, and fresh mint juleps are ordered around as everyone searches their program and their psyche for the next race's winner.
Status consciousness and elitism are rife at Churchill Downs, and the higher you climb in the stadium, the thicker this atmosphere becomes. The pecking order runs from the surging masses in the Infield up through bleaches, seats in the Grandstand, boxes in the Clubhouse, and finally to the lofty Penthouse, enclosed, air conditioned and incredibly exclusive. No amount of money will purchase entrance to this haunt of senators, presidents, occasional royalty and, yes, sometimes even movie stars, it is invitation only.
And now, through the tunnel and into that infamous stew of bourbon freaks, sun worshippers and lovers, the Infield. NO ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES PERMITTED piously states the sign over the main gate, so the game is to smuggle it in, and smuggle it in they do. Squeeze your way between the writhing, perspiring bodies in all stages of dishabille (you're liable to see anything in the Infield).
Here is more human flesh and cold drink coolers per square inch than is possible. Bourbon straight bourbon in coke, bourbon in grapette. A thousand square yards of overlapping blankets umbrellas Kentucky Fried Chicken discarded clothes newspapers clever hats transistor radios books football Frisbees and fraternity banners. There are hippies heads straights rednecks coeds jocks teeny boppers and weirdoes. It is a young crowd, a crowd only vaguely aware that horse racing is going on around them (when do they play "My Old Kentucky Home"?), and packed in there eyeball to elbow, it is just as well; they couldn't see anything if they wanted to.
But listen: it is the bugle call announcing another race-not just another race, but THE RACE-at last it is time for the Kentucky Derby. OH, nostalgia! Oh, sentiment! Who can watch the stolen parade of the Derby entries without a tingle of excitement? What eye does not glisten as the band gently plays "My Old Kentucky Home" in the late afternoon sun? It is the moment: one of those bitter-sweet pauses on the brink of a treasured event too soon gone.
And now it is over. Two minutes of the most concentrated action in sport, an instant of roses and glory for the winner, and the exhausted crowd begins to filter out the exits.
Hour later, newspapers tumble across a litter strewn infield, and only the ghostly echo of Derbies long-run drifts through the corridors and courtyards of Churchill Downs.