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Pre-race Kentucky Derby rituals are big part of culture, excitement

A woman wearing a festive hat looks on

A woman wearing a festive hat looks on prior to the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday in Louisville, Ky. Credit: Getty Images/Andy Lyons

LOUISVILLE, Ky.  — For centuries, thoroughbred racing has been a mainstay of Kentucky’s culture. Three generations of families will go to the races together, and not just on event days. The ultimate experience is Derby weekend, when as many as 275,000 show up in their fanciest outfits.

Elaborate dresses for the ladies, and pink or white shirts and black bow ties for the men, were on display. The endless lines to the ladies’ rooms looked like impromptu fashion shows.      

“People rally around horse racing here, everywhere you go,” said California-based trainer Bob Baffert, a five-time Derby winner who calls Churchill Downs “our second home.”

"What I love about the Derby is the buildup. That’s part of the whole process to enjoy the Derby.”

As always, thousands flocked to the backstretch during the week to see the Derby runners work out. They didn’t necessarily know which ones they were watching, but that didn’t matter. Being part of the scene, savoring the vibe and absorbing the anticipation of the big race late Saturday afternoon, was the irresistible lure.

Agent Doug Bredar represents transplanted Frenchman Florent Geroux, who joined the jockey elite with multiple stakes victories on 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner and last year’s 3-year-old filly champion and Kentucky Oaks winner, Monomoy Girl.

To Bredar, the Derby’s confusion and mystery make it unique among the great races of the world.

“I think it’s an incredibly difficult choice for a rider if he has to decide [between two mounts],” Bredar said. “Horses are running in prep races all over the country before they come here. Pedigrees can give you a guideline, and so can their running styles. But you just don’t know.”

Expensive trip

A trip to the Derby is a popular item on many bucket lists. If you’re thinking about finally doing it, you’d better have a bucketful of cash.

The round-trip flight from New York or Islip to Louisville can cost anywhere from $425 to twice that, and even more if you book late. Hotels that charge $100 or so on the other 362 nights of the year will rip you off for $1,200 total for Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the dreaded “Derby Package.” Prices for seats on Derby Day also are exorbitant. According to TickPick, a secondary ticket site, as of Tuesday its average purchase price was $546. Last year it was $438.

It costs $91 for a general admission ticket to the infield, where there are no seats but thousands of screaming drunks. And if you need a cab after the big race, a 2-mile ride can cost $35, not including tip, if you have any money left.

Or you could stay home, bet on an Internet account and have a Derby party with friends. Sometimes your best moves are the ones you don’t make.

Local color

Insights from a lifelong Louisville resident who preferred to remain anonymous:

“There’s nothing like Derby Day. When they play ‘My Old Kentucky Home,’ the hair on the back of my neck stands up.”

The 70-something guy is not, however, a fan of the Derby’s famous drink of choice, which was going for $15 apiece. (At least you could keep the fancy glass.)

“Mint juleps taste awful. But if you drink enough of them, they go down fine.”

Many began drinking them shortly after the gates opened at 8 a.m., and some had pregamed with homemade juleps. Undoubtedly, they went down fine.  

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