Giddy Up!

Michiganians race down to Kentucky for Derby festivities
Photograph by Debbie Richardson

The horses are shiny and muscular. The beautiful people are dressed to the nines. Tradition is thicker than an icy mint julep. And the whole town is jumping.

Welcome to the Kentucky Derby, the most exciting two minutes in sports, held annually on the first Saturday of May at Churchill Downs in Louisville. This year, the 135th Derby will be run on May 2, with the top 3-year-old colts in the country competing.

But the city of Louisville has extended the 120-second sporting event into a monthlong celebration that rivals the actual race. While more than 150,000 people from New York to California will attend the Derby, another 1.5 million are expected to show up just to party at dozens of Derby-related events in and around the city.

Dave Zink, a golf pro from Oxford, is among the Michiganians who love the Derby and its hoopla. He’s gone to 19 of the last 20. (A wedding forced him to skip one.) Most years, he and seven buddies head for Louisville a couple of days in advance of Derby day. “We look forward to it all year,” Zink says. “I will go to the Derby as long as I can.”

Fans spend thousands of dollars for race-day seats at Churchill Downs. But for the experience on the cheap, $40 gains admittance to the track’s infield, where there are thousands of picnickers and Frisbee tossers, says Darren Rogers, Churchill Downs’ senior director of communications.

Kevin Donley, an advertising executive from Pleasant Ridge, has traveled to the Derby four times, the last in 2002. “For me, it’s one of America’s great traditions,” he says. “The first time you see those steeples, you get chills.” Now that he has children at home, Donley has opted to re-create a bit of the Louisville mood at home by throwing Derby parties for more than 100 guests. He serves mint juleps and what he calls authentic Kentucky food: Colonel Sanders.

Besides the race itself, the biggest event in Louisville each year is the Derby Festival: a two-week whirlwind of parties, boat races, fireworks, and air shows, culminating in the Pegasus Parade. “Lots of people come down from the Michigan area for the race and the parade,” says festival communications manager Mark Shallcross. Aside from the lure of the rituals, it’s an appealing short drive, just 360 miles, or about six hours.

Louisville also offers year-round attractions for visitors. Points of interest include the Derby Museum at the track, the Muhammad Ali Center, a Ghosts of Old Louisville tour, and the Louisville Slugger Museum. A bit farther south is the Gen. George Patton Museum at Fort Knox.

Metro Detroiters staying close to home on race day can still watch big-screen TVs and wager at the new Pinnacle Race Course in New Boston, Windsor Raceway, and the Hazel Park and Northville Downs harness tracks. More than 400 horses have been nominated to the Derby — from 9/1 Old Fashioned to 100/1 Atomic Rain — but fewer than two dozen likely will run. Win or lose, the fried chicken, juleps, and traditionally elaborate ladies’ hats make the day a good bet.

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