Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Kentucky Derby 101.9: A Guide For Derby Virgins

This year, amongst others, there are some notable Derby Virgins: Bonita, Paul Westerdawg, a few people who emailed me, and there are even rumors that legendary Big East Ken might fall out of the sky at the last second.

As such, I decided to write a handy guide for anyone coming to Louisville and attending their first Kentucky Derby; such people are often referred to as Derby Virgins. So here it is.

1. Tout Your
Derby Virginity
Kentuckians are a hospitable bunch, and at no other time are they more friendly and hospitable than for Derby, which is a massive point of pride for the entire state and their single annual chance to shine on the national and world stage. As such they love showing visitors a great time and will go to great lengths to be super hospitable and friendly. If you are a Derby Virgin, then this desire to please increases tenfold. So when people strike up friendly conversations with you or vicey versey, be sure to mention that this is your 1st Derby. They are sure to be excited and may do something extra special for you. Not just locals, either. At the Derby, tell everyone you meet that it is your first time and you will receive universal approvals and smiles. Basically the complete opposite of advertising your sexual virginity back in the day.

2. Be Prepared: Weather & What To Pack/Wear
In 1997, my 1st Derby, we all stumbled out of bed, didn’t check the weather, and rolled to Churchill Downs in shorts, t shirts, and I think I had a windbreaker. A front rolled in and all of a sudden it is 37 degrees, cloudy, raw and cold. My windbreaker went to my GF at the time and it was freezing, almost literally, but I had $5 across the board on Silver Charm and got to see him cross the wire through a fence from our old secret spot in the infield near the finish line, which warmed me right up. In 2001 it was 88 and humid as hell, with not a cloud in the sky. It felt like 100, I was hungover as hell, and was pretty miserable.

So basically you can get anything in early may in Louisville, from 30s and sleet to 90. Keep checking the weather forecast and have a few contingency plans as far as dress – shorts, pants, light jacket, etc. That being said, you can wear anything from an Armani suit or ball gown to jorts and a wifebeater, and everything in between. The key is to keep your eye on the weather and pick an outfit that you will be comfortable in.

3A Derby Week is a Marathon Not a Sprint; Party Accordingly
You are more than likely going to be engaging in multiple partying sessions in 48 hours, so beware. You know that point after about 3 drinks when you make that decision to scale it back and just keep a nice buzz, or say “fuck it!” and set the SS Drink to the "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" setting? Well during Derby week choose wisely, as you may nullify or greatly reduce the fun of future sessions. For example, I have had way too much to drink on Thursday night, been hungover/sick Friday to where I could not drink Friday night, but then was good to go for Derby on Saturday. I have partied way too hard on Friday night and been hungover and miserable at the track on Saturday, etc, etc. The goal is to have fun without getting messy during all 3 of your sessions- the 2 night ones, as well as all day at the track on Saturday.

Our routine these days is to go out Thursday night, go out Friday night, and then Derby on Saturday, then chill, relax, stay in on Saturday night when we are exhausted. Many others do the Friday night/Derby at the track/go out Saturday night trifecta, but it is for Viking warriors only, as you are talking about 3 heavy partying sessions in 24 hours. Either way you are looking at 3 partying sessions in 36-48 hours, so use extreme care when making those decisions after your 3rd drink, because going balls out with the drinking night and day doesn’t work, and will lead to a crash and burn- trust me, I have lived it many times and in many variants.

3B. Sleep/Preparation
On top of what I just said, you will probably not get a normal amount of sleep all weekend; similar to a Vegas experience. This is surely moreso for me, as I have lots of locals to visit and my days are full of activities and whatnot that would not be the case if I knew no one in town and was staying in a hotel with a few other people, but still beware. Flying in from the West Coast on a redeye makes it even trickier, as you are starting out the trip on no sleep.

In 2006 I landed Thursday morning off a redeye, started out pretty exhausted, drank waaaaaaay too much on Thursday night, ran into Earl about 3 a.m., then got up at 7 a.m. Friday to play golf, then met friends, and was done. When it was time to go out Friday night I realized that I had a choice: go out Friday and the Derby would be a total waste as my body would fail, or sacrifice Friday night, get some sleep, and enjoy Saturday at the track. I chose the latter, and it worked out, although I missed out on meeting up with some hilarious Geordie Newcastle fans I was told. Just an illustration of the drinking/decision making described above {read: don’t say “fuck it!” after 3 drinks on Thursday night, get shitfaced, then fertilize the lawn around The Hits mailbox as well as Brain’s wife’s beautiful bathroom sink}.

A good idea is to go neo-con and do a pre-emptive attack on sleep deprivation/potential exhaustion. Try to get a nice full night’s sleep the night prior to going to Louisville, and even the couple before then, so that you hit the ground fresh. Of course, yours truly finished packing last night at 2.30 a.m. and got up to go to work at 6.30 a.m., so do as I say and not as I did. At least not having the red eye exhaustion this year is a massive, massive benefit; I get in late Wednesday and will get a “normal” night’s sleep.

Also, naps are a good idea. Sneak them in whenever possible.

4. The Derby Economy: Straight Cash, Homey
Don’t go all modern and bring only the debit card to Churchill Downs; it’s an overwhelmingly cash economy. General Admission is $40 cash and you’re in; back when VISA was the main sponsor of the Triple Crown they had it setup where you could pay to get in on your VISA card only {no MC or AMEX}, but to be honest I do not know if this is still an option since VISA dropped out of the sponsorship game 2 years ago. Even then, paying with VISA would slow things down considerably, and when you have 100,000 people paying to get in general admission, it’s much faster and easier to have cash at the ready to get your ass in.

Once in it’s much the same. The betting windows only accept cash, unless you are in the clubhouse or Millionaire’s row they may have new fancy touchscreen machines that allow you to use debit, but I don’t know and if you are going to Millionaire’s Row of the Clubhouse then you aren’t reading this right now, you’re reading Forbes and Cigar Aficionado, or maybe the Financial Times or Wall Street Journal. Anyhow, any betting that you want to do requires straight cash, homey, so plan accordingly.
Food is cash only as well, as are mint juleps. I think the merch booths might allow credit, but I’m not 100%.
Basically, you need to cash up before you get to CD. There are a few scattered ATMs around, but with 155,000 people on site you’ll be waiting in a long ass line if you find one, so plan ahead and hit an ATM before you go to the Downs. And obviously, safeguard your cash in a secure place, because this in theory would be a pickpocketer’s wet dream. Literally thousands of people with literally millions of dollars in cash on their persons. I have never heard of or seen or been picked, but with an on track handle {money taken in at the betting windows} on Derby day north of $20 million cash, not to mention the $3-4 million cash taken in at the gate, as well as food, drink, and merch money it goes without saying to be careful with your wad of cash.

5. At The Track: Churchill Downs
If you want to rage/party, then go to the 3rd turn in the infield. Like Mardi Gras or the biggest college house party you have ever been too, with nudity too! The later in the afternoon it gets, the nuttier it gets. We used to do that all the time when we were younger...

... but now that we are older, and we are also into the horses, these days we enjoy camping out by the paddock{where the horses are led in, get saddled, and the riders climb on before they go back out to the track to race}, which is much more chill. There we get to see the incredibly beautiful racehorses up close and personal (like 5 feet away- if you are into horses/horse racing at all then you really should walk over at some point to the paddock and see the horses come in and go out- they are just amazing}, drink juleps, bet the races all day, spot celebrities {seeing OJ at Derby = beyond surreal} and hang out and chill. An added bonus is easy access from the paddock to a covered section which offers intermittent shade on hot days and a dry place when it occasionally rains. We really loved the infield scene when we were younger but now that we're all 30 somethings this is more our scene these days.
Do not try to sneak alcohol in. This was an old tradition where people would get more creative than you would ever imagine, but after 9/11 they went a bit nutty with the gate security and now it is damn near impossible, so don’t try because your shit will get tossed into one of several massive plastic trash bins with the hundreds other failed bottles. Save your money and either drink more before you go to the track or to buy beer/juleps once inside.
Also, they provide a comprehensive list nowadays of exactly what you can and cannot bring into the track, mainly because the VERBOTEN category grew exponentially after 9/11 and lots of people who had been coming for years were caught off guard and pissed.

On a related note, the lunch food options are kind of crap, overpriced/undercooked burgers, brats, pork sandwiches, and the like. However, you are allowed to bring in food as long as it is in a clear plastic container, so we find it best to simply stop off at Subway on our way to CD and sandwich up. Subway rocks the clear plastic bags so they’re perfect, and it’s cheaper, tastes better, and is healthier than most of the food available inside the track. Invariably each year once we get in and start to grub down, 20 people come up to us while we are eating and say “oh, man- where did y’all get that?” and they are disappointed when we tell them that it’s from the outside world {and no they can’t have a bite}.
As far as betting, get your bets in early. There are a ton of betting windows but not enough to accommodate 155,000 people without a bit of a line. So don’t expect to cruise up to a window with 4 minutes to post and get that juicy bet down at the last minute because you saw a horse take a massive dump while walking out onto the track. You might make it, but you might not. There’s about 45 minutes between each of the 12 races, so if you want to bet the next race then give yourself plenty of time to get the bet in; depending on where you are and which race you can expect to wait in line at the betting window for anywhere from 0 to 15 minutes, and 20 is not unheard of in the infield.
Everything I just said, double at least for the Derby. The Derby is the 10th race, and if you wait until after the 9th race to get your bet in because you want to see the current odds {displayed on totes and screens all over the track}, then I’d get in line with at least 30 minutes to go. At least. If you know what horse you want to bet, then my best advice is to get your bet in earlier in the day, then it is done with, your bets are in, and you can enjoy the spectacle instead of stressing out over whether or not you are going to get your bet in.
I have a bunch of Derby bets that I make for others all over the country, and I get those bets in and done early in the day- one less thing to worry about. If you have anyone back at home who asked you to make a bet for them, I highly recommend doing the same and getting them out of the way early in the day.

The official Derby Program has a page explaining how to place your bet with the ticket taker- how to say it – that is a good guide. Most ticket takers are also very friendly and will be happy to help you. Basically you state the race number {there are 12 races, the Derby being the 10th}, although if you are betting the Derby many people say “the Derby” instead of “the 10th”, then the type of bet followed by the program number of the horse. For example, you might say “In the 6th, I’d like $10 to win on the 2, a $2 exacta box with the 4, 7, and 11, and $5 to place on the 8”. Do not use horse names, only their numbers.

I’ll finish with two words for checking out the unbelievably bountiful ‘scenery’: dark sunglasses. No one likes a gawker- it’s unseemly.

6. Souveniers- The Julep Glass
The best souvenir for yourself, or to take home to loved ones, is easily and without question the julep glass, which are unique each year and feature the official Derby art & logo for that year, as well as a list of every derby winner. They are cool as hell. Anyhow, juleps at the track are now $10 from the julep man, but are served in these glasses which you get to keep. I have found over the years that keeping them at the track all day and lugging them around and getting them home in one piece is tricky. They also have a terrible tendency to get stuck when you stack them together- like hermetically sealed stuck, to where unsticking them can result in broken glass. Plus after the long day they are dirty, sticky, and tricky.

A great alternative for getting your Derby glasses out of the way is to buy them at a local store. They’re like $2 each, and they sell them EVERYWHERE: Walmart, corner stores, supermarkets, liquor stores, gas stations, the airport, you name it. It’s easier to buy 1 or 10 of these at a store for taking home- they’re clean, unused, and most stores will wrap them in paper for you and if you buy enough put them in a box. {another tip is to use your socks to wrap/stuff them for the trip home to keep them from breaking, especially if you are flying}.

My usual plan is to buy most of what I’ll need for glasses at a store, and then if a couple or three survive Derby day and get back in one piece then add them to the mix, and if needed hit a store on the way out of town. Alternately, you could just see if you can get a few out of the track in one piece and then order them online once you get back home and just have them shipped to you.

7. Nightlife: Derby After Dark
As far as nightlife/bars, Bardstown Road is the best spot. There is a place called Phoenix Hill Tavern that is one of the coolest bars I have ever been in my life. It's like being a little kid in a treehouse: multiple floors, rooms/levels, indoors & out, with 6-8 different areas with bands/music from A to Z. It's like $10 to get in Fri & Sat but worth it, and it is hoppin with honeys as well {not that everywhere else isn't}. This is a REALLY fun place to go party, and literally has something for everyone. If you are only to go out to one place on Fri or Sat night, go here.
Another cool place is down the street a ways, an Irish bar called O'Sheas. Also on Bardstown Rd. Much smaller, but has a nice chill scene and 2 different areas with live music.

If you want to go to an EPIC dive bar and have a fun experience, there is a place called The Back Door {amazingly NOT a gay bar} that is an outstanding dive bar.

It's in a strip mall off Bardstown Road, close to Burrito As Big As Your Head {more on that in a minute} but across the street. Go in and order a tray of "Blue Buckys". It a blue shooter drink, and I think you get 6 or 8 on a tray, and they are like $2 each. Go with your group for a couple or five trays, totally worth it, a GREAT dive bar experience.
Finally, Make sure to make a run for Burrito As Big As Your Head, yes that really is the name of the restaurant {actually it's La Bamba: Burrito As Big As Your Head}:

Their tagline is "Open Til The Bars Close" and the bars in Louisville close at either 4 a.m. or 6 a.m., so this is a wonderful place for late night eats. And yes, if you get the large burrito, and hold it up to your head, you will see that they former is in fact longer than the latter.

A few nightlife options that I don't recommend:
 4th Street is a big scene but too packed and crazy for my taste. It is very similar to the Landing in Jacksonville on Georgia/Florida weekend. Great if you are a college student or under 25 and just want to get wasted amongst the biggest crowd, but once you are a little older it's just too many people crammed in too small of a space. Check that- it's too many drunk people crammed into too small of a space.

Also avoid the 'Chow Wagon', which is very lame. It is the same thing as a county fair- corn dog vendors, cotton candy, other shitty overpriced fair food, and a concert, and I think maybe fireworks. The only reason to go would be if the concert performer was someone you really liked.

8. Eats
Everyone’s tastes are so different that this is a fool’s errand, so you are on your own. I know that if you are near the Ole Hickory Pit BBQ then it is an absolute must, but note that they do the Chick-Fil-A and are closed on Sundays.

Another good place if you are in the neighborhood is Pie Kitchen on Bardstown road, famous for their homemade ice cream, desserts, and of course Derby Pie. Old school charm {think Hodgson’s in Five Points in Athens, GA} and amazing desserts. 

So there it is. Enjoy losing your Derby Virginity, as you only get to give it away once. And it only hurts for a minute; after that it is wonderful, and you’ll be wanting to do it again and again for the rest of your life.
Brain, The Hit, Solon, Tasso- what did I miss?


Ryno said...

Can't Wait!

If I spot the skinny guy in the pimped out gator shoes near the paddock - I'll come by and say "hi!"

Thanks for the detailed post.

Paul Westerdawg said...


jakldawg said...

Few years ago I saw a guy get pickpocketed in the infield while he was...distracted.
I also saw O.J. (much later) Both things brought out the same "we need to get the hell outa here" response. Phoenix Hill sounds like more fun than the sleeveless shirt and tribal-armband-fest of Chow Wagon that my friends will end up going to.