by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

LOUISVILLE — The beasts were pawing at the gates.

“START THEM UP!” someone screamed.

“WOOOH!” screamed someone else.

Only the gates stood between them and mad glory. The beasts were restless. The beasts wanted to run.

“IT’S TIIIIME!” someone screamed.

“DO IT!” screamed someone else.

A cop checked his watch. There were about 75 cops there, billy clubs by their sides, safe on the other side of the gates, away from these wild animals. The cop with the watch looked up. He nodded.

The locks were lifted. The gates swung open. And the beasts charged toward the track. They had been out there for hours, some all night long; they had slept in cloth bags and blankets, on the sidewalk just a few feet away from the white-spired grandeur of Churchill Downs — where they would run the Kentucky Derby this afternoon for the 112th straight time.

These were human beasts. The worst kind. The kind without tickets.

They had begin arriving at 6 p.m. the night before. They had come to claim the infield, the Churchill Downs infield. Twenty dollars gets you a section of grass as big as your rear end, where you can sit and bake in the sun and shower with beer. It’s the only way in here for the regular guy who can’t pony up $127.50 for a lousy reserved seat.

Many had spent the night in their cars or on the sidewalk. Their faces were twisted, their eyes droopy, their hair matted, their breath stale with sleep and booze. But it was 8 a.m. Derby day, the gates had been opened, and so they were sprinting toward the tunnel that went under the track and spilled onto the infield grass, sprinting for the best spots before someone else got them. And I started to run with them.

I don’t know why. It was just a sudden mass frenzy, like running with the bulls through the streets of Spain. Only here I was racing against two long-haired bikers with shades and folding chairs and a cooler.

“Get the quarter pole spot!” yelled one.

“Go left outta the tunnel!” yelled the other.

We were breathing hard, locked in a desperate 400-yard dash. Suddenly it was all that mattered. That spot. It was me or them. Survival of the fastest. Our legs pumped. It was early morning. The horses were somewhere in their stables. The debutantes were home, picking out their outfits. The Kentucky Colonels were enjoying their breakfasts.

And there we were, two bikers, one journalist, and thousands of footsteps, charging down the concrete, panting and sweating like the very beasts we had come to bet on. . . .

How exactly I ended up in the middle of this deranged race is fuzzy. A blur. There was something about a strip joint and a waitress and a street party at 4 a.m., and mint juleps and motor homes and a lady who told me the best way to sneak whiskey into the Derby was to hide a flask inside a loaf of bread, because “they never look there.”

I’m not sure how this all fits together, even now. But I figure that’s one of the side effects of the depraved illness they call Derby Fever; a euphemism for 48 hours of decadent, liquor-soaked behavior that gets ugly every few hours, like clockwork.

You might as well know right off that there are two sides to this most famous of horse races. What you see on TV — the lime green knickers, the hoop skirts, Millionaires Row, the Derby breakfasts, the box seats, the cultured talk about the fine breeding of horse No. 3 — all that is one side.

And then there’s the other side. Where the real beasts perform.

I was on that side Saturday morning. And the bikers were a step ahead of me . . .

But wait. Let’s back up two days. The idea here was to witness the Derby from the street up. Leave the horse details to our racing writer and just go for the color. So naturally, when we blew into Louisville in the wee hours of Thursday morning (“we” being myself and Jimmy S., a friend who likes to accompany me on these sick little jaunts) we asked the cab driver to immediately recommended an action spot. He suggested a club called the Green Light Lounge.

Never ask a cab driver. The Green Light Lounge — whose sign read “DERBY FANS: CHECK OUT OUR FILLIES!” — proved to be a seedy little strip joint that charges a dollar to walk in the door. You get 30 seconds for your eyes to adjust to the dark, and then the female dancers saddle up alongside you.

“Buy me a ticket?” said a brunette in a red dress cut down to the imagination.

“Ticket to what?” I said.

“That’s how we work it here,” she said. “You buy me a ticket, I can sit with you.”

“How much is a ticket?” I asked.

“They start at 12 dollars,” she said.

Jimmy and I exchanged glances. We figured neither of our bosses would mind that little item on our expense accounts, considering the information we could get. Right, boss? We bought the ticket. She sat down.

In five minutes we learned more about Derby week than was contained in all those colorful books they stuff in your media packet. Nancy (that was the name she gave us) said she worked in a nursing home in eastern Kentucky most of the year, but always came to Louisville during Derby Week. Said she could clear $800 for five nights worth of smiling and dancing and wearing skimpy dresses. That’s hard paper to turn down.

“I get all kinds,” she said, lighting up a cigaret, “high rollers, motorcycle guys. Friday night before the Derby is the busiest. It’s nonstop. The bar stays open until 6 a.m. This is an unbelievable week.”

Nancy said tickets to sit with her — and only sit with her — ran up to
$50 a pop, depending on how much the Derby tourists felt like spending. I asked her how many minutes you got for 12 bucks.

She looked at her watch. “You’re on overtime now, sweetheart,” she said.

Suffice it to say it was a late night. But in the interest of a fair picture, we hit the track early on Friday morning. And I mean early. Like 6:30 a.m. I don’t know why horsemen like to get up before the sun. Probably keeps the reporters who come out from asking too many questions, since most of them are asleep standing up.

Anyhow, it was worth seeing, because the difference between Churchill Downs at sunrise and Churchill Downs in the middle of the fifth race is like the difference between Wisconsin and Beirut. In the morning hours, the horses graze quietly, while the trainers talk softly about their chances. You hear the occasional thundering of hoofs around the track. And then it’s quiet again.

It’s here, along the backstretch, where writers fall in love with horse racing. It’s in the bleachers where they come to loathe it.

When the gates open, the whole scene changes. Especially on Derby Weekend. The entire range of human condition comes through these doors, from the down-and-out war vet in a wheelchair to Don Johnson of “Miami Vice.” That’s part of what the Derby is about, they brag. Everybody gets a peek. Everybody gets to hunker down a wager on Snow Chief or Badger Land, and to spend five or six hours in Derby glory.

They just don’t spend it the same way.

Friday went by quickly. The afternoon was the running of the Kentucky Oaks, the filly version of the Derby. It was a prelude of things to come. Churchill Downs was packed.

Hats. Everywhere hats. Bowlers and Stetsons and big round things with flowers and ribbons and pink veils hanging down. That’s what I remember most. And girls hawking mint juleps like they hawk programs at Tiger Stadium. And people waiting in line for the bathrooms, for water fountains, for wagers. Every hotel room in Louisville was gone. Every decent restaurant was running double shifts.

We ate that night at some rib joint that boasted five video screens. There were horseshoes on the walls. I remember that. And a two-hour wait. When a table cleared people who’d been standing began to fight over the empty chairs. A guy who said his name was Mister Wonderful got in a tug of war with a young woman. “This chair stays here,” he growled. I had a lousy feeling about the night after that.

Still, nothing, at least nothing short of a full scale nuclear alert, could have prepared me for the streets outside Churchill Downs late Friday night. How do you describe it? It was as if MTV, Hells Angels, and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” had let out onto Central Avenue and multiplied by a thousand. Teenage kids staggering on top of one another. Beer cans rolling across the street. Old men rocking on their porches with shotguns under blankets. An auto body shop with a crap game being run inside. And screams. Screams that rose like sudden smoke, rose out of nowhere, people just screaming to a crescendo, then stopping. In the daylight it would have been weird. In the darkness of 2 a.m. it was a signal to head for cover.

We were moving quickly back to the car when we passed a stocky cop from the Louisville sheriff’s office.

“Any trouble yet, officer?” I asked him.

“Nah,” he said, slapping his night stick. “Just some fighters, and some boys trying to sell that Mary Jane You-Wanna stuff. Nuthin’ too bad.”

Just then a buddy of his came up and slapped him on the back. “HEY YOU REDNECK!” the buddy yelled. “WHICH WAY TO FAIRYTOWN?”

“Let’s get out of here,” I said to Jimmy. He didn’t argue.

On our way to the car we passed the now-locked entrance to the general admission infield section. It was six hours away from opening. There were already dozens of people tucked into sleeping bags against the bars, trying to keep warm in the 48- degree night.

“I been here six straight years,” said a guy from Florida. “I ain’t missing this one.” Across the street was an all-night drugstore. It had a grill going, and the sizzle of sausage and eggs mixed with cigar-choked conversation.

Under normal conditions, you wouldn’t set foot in the place. Tonight it was paradise. People nursed their coffee and pie, hoping to stay warm and safe for a few extra minutes before the waitress asked them to leave. It was, after all, a long way until 8 a.m.

Which sort of brings us back to where we began this weird tale, the footrace against the bikers. Let’s just call the thing a draw. The three of us burst out of the tunnel and into the infield and realized, panting, that there was no big rush. The place was massive.

As the hours went by it filled up. Kids in football shirts. Old men in caps and jackets. There were Port-O-Lets and betting windows and refreshment stands out there. The drinking began almost immediately.

“Get started now,” hollered some geek in a rose hat. “Gonna be a long day.”

That was the truth. The rest of it blends in and out of my mind in jump cuts:

There was, of course, the infield. And there was the paddock, where they bring the horses before the races. By mid-afternoon, people are 10 deep all around, and the horses can get pretty spooked, especially when some drunken fool screams “AWW RIIIGHT!” directly into their ears. Last year, something like that happened, and a horse bridled and broke into a sweat. “Ruined him for the race,” said an observer.

There are no official statistics on how many races have been lost at the paddock. But you can bet that one wasn’t the first.

Above that is the Paddock lounge, which is a few hundred dollars and several light years away from the infield. Here were white shoes beneath white slacks beneath a white sports jacket and a white hat. Here were women with shoulder pads beneath their silk dresses and tall men who looked like they should be on a fried chicken bucket, flagging down waitresses and saying, “How
’bout a few of those mint juleps, little darlin’?” This was the glitter and romance they write about. The exclusive corporate booths were not far away. The air smelled of fine food, Derby pie and money.

By 3 p.m. the infield was a drunken sea of humanity. The whole place seemed to sway. People were singing, rolling on top of each other. The lines for the beer were only exceeded by the lines for the Port-O-Lets, both of which were beyond sanity. It was Woodstock without music. Half-clad bodies waving at clouds. Tents pitched 20 feet from the betting windows


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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