It's the fastest and most exciting two minutes in sports. Imagine several tons of fluid fury and power thundering down a dirt track for thoroughbred bragging rights and the coveted blanket of roses.
It's the first Saturday in May, and for two minutes the world stops to watch some of the best athletes in the world race for a $2 million purse. Legs churning, a small silk-clad slip of a man perched on their backs like a tick atop a mastodon, the horse cares naught about the pomp or the circumstance - it's got game, and it's going for a win.
Jockeys say racing is no cakewalk. It's not as if the horses just get out and run. The 20 thoroughbreds, when there's a full field with no scratches, are like hockey players. They bump, slam and shoulder their way to daylight through the field of horse flesh because daylight means they are bound for glory at the end of the mile and a quarter.
This year when the announcer yells, "They're off!" and the hundreds of thousands of spectators stand up as one and scream "go," it's the culmination of a celebration that's been 135 years in the making.
Kentucky has honed the traditions of the Derby into a two-week extravaganza of horse races, a parade, enough juleps to stretch to the moon and back and a stunning pyrotechnic display.
Tom and Ellen Schanzle-Haskins, along with another couple from Springfield, will be screaming along with the rest of the throng. "We've been hooked on the Derby since 1994," she said. There's some horsy history behind their attendance at the Derby.
Ellen Schanzle-Haskins' father, George, was friends with oil baron Bonnie Heath. Heath made his fortune in Illinois and Indiana, then moved to Florida but kept in touch with his friend. In 1956, he called George and told him, Ellen recounted, that he had bought a racehorse and that horse was going to win the Derby. And oh, did George want to come to the Derby that year?
With five kids, her father didn't feel it was quite a good idea to leave for the Derby, so he declined. Needles won the Derby that year - the first horse from a Florida stable that got the coveted blanket of roses.
Through the years the men kept in touch, and in 1994, the Schanzles got another call - did George want to come to the Derby? George didn't - but his daughter Ellen would like to, and that sealed it.
Now the average person just doesn't get tickets to the Derby, according to Ellen.
"There's a philanthropic organization called the Kentucky Colonels that you ask to join," she said. "They didn't accept women for the longest time, so my brother was a Kentucky Colonel and then using that, as well as the many donations you make to the organizations, you ask for tickets."
"It involves lots of groveling," Tom adds. "Oh yes," Ellen agrees with a laugh, "I can grovel with the best of them for Derby tickets."
Churchill Downs "allows" you to get tickets and pay for them immediately even though it's more then six months before the Derby. The Schanzle-Haskins have been getting four tickets every year for the past 10 years.
There's the Kentucky Derby, which is one race, and then there's going to "the Derby." The distinction here is that "the Derby" involves parties, the Oaks - which are races for fillies held the day before the Derby - a parade, juleps and hats.
"We usually get decent tickets," Ellen said. "You don't get tickets in the same place each year. We usually get a box for the Oaks and are in the grandstand for the Derby."
One year they went with Tom and Denise Nudo of Springfield.
"We had a great time," Tom Nudo said. "It's nice to go somewhere where the ladies and the men dress up. It really is a spectacle. There are very few gatherings of that magnitude in the United States. Maybe the Indy 500 crowds compare.
"There is so much tradition to the Derby. And when they play that song, 'My Old Kentucky Home,' it makes you think of all that tradition, and it's just great."
Tom Nudo said he thought his wife looked quite fetching in her hat. Likewise, Ed Mahoney said his wife, Sue, looked pretty good in her hat, too. They went with the Schanzle-Haskins about six years ago.
The grandstands, the boxes and Millionaire's Row, that rarified area for the fabulously rich and famous, are the best places to watch the Derby, Sue said.
"You can buy tickets in the infield, but you can't see anything because it's this big flat area," she added.
Ellen said the infield has the festive atmosphere of a mosh pit and drunken frat party. Now, she's not condemning alcohol use: juleps and Kentucky Fried Chicken are big traditions at Churchill Downs. Since Kentucky Fried Chicken is from, well, Kentucky, it's the favorite bring-in food in the infield. Apparently for that set, nothing says "Derby" like a bucket of chicken and a homemade hat.
Ellen buys a new hat for each Derby when she checks out of the hotel. "For the Derby, they open hat shops in the hotels," she said.
"You have to be impressed by the caliber of the horses at the Derby," said Sue Mahoney. "They are gorgeous. They are bred to win the Derby."
"There's so much going on that you don't see on TV," said Ed Mahoney, like the races that lead up to the Kentucky Derby, the parade and the fireworks display that's a prelude to the big race. He said he was glad they gave out the words to "My Old Kentucky Home."
"It was cool; it was impressive; it was a great spectacle and I'd love to go back sometime," Ed Mahoney said.
Ellen, said Tom Schanzle-Haskins, likes to bet on the fillies or bet on horses with "cool" names.
"There are so many variables," said Tom. "Has the horse ever run on a dirt track before? If it's raining, how does the horse do in the rain? What have they done at other races?"
Once you start going to the Derby, the couple said, you set up your own traditions. They always go to breakfast at Lynn's Paradise Café, and the evening before the Derby you can go watch the jockeys at some of the clubs.
Tom Schanzle-Haskins keeps journals for each trip as part of their Derby traditions.
"It's just a stunning spectacle of tradition. The horses are gorgeous, the people are dressed up - the line outside the ladies' room is very well-dressed," he adds.
"A hat makes clothing identifiable, dramatic - and, most importantly, fashionable ... It's the cherry on the cake, the dot on the 'i,' the exclamation mark, the fashion focus. Everyone from showgirls to dictators knows that by wearing a hat they will be the centre of attention."
- Milliner Stephen Jones
Hats have been a part of the Derby tradition for years, but exactly why is a mystery. One explanation could be that they've been a part of Derby television coverage since WHAS-television personality Phyllis Knight made a point of talking hats when she covered the race. Many of the hotels in Louisville have millinery shops set up in the lobby so guests who can't transport the fashionable headgear can buy their hat just before the race - or pick one up in anticipation for the next year.
— from the Seelbach Hotel
Story published Friday, May 1, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 3 )