For the first time in two years fans flocked to Churchill Downs to see the Kentucky Derby race beneath the Twin Spires. As BTI shared earlier, I'm obviously a big fan of the event, but even a savvy infield vet had lessons to learn from the largest North American sporting event since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Never leave out Bob Baffert
The silver fox with cool shades has turned the Kentucky Derby winner's circle into a home away from home. Medina Spirit made him the winningest trainer in the race's history. Now with seven victories, he has four winners in just the last seven years, including a pair of Triple Crowns.
Despite the recent success leading into the race, I was one of many who threw out the horse. Besides, Medina Spirit wasn't even billed as the best Baffert horse in this crop of three-year-olds, once described by the trainer as an "overachiever." We should have known this horse was shaping up just like last year's Derby winner, Authentic, as a consummate board-hitter. Instead, we let a Bob Baffert horse win the Kentucky Derby at 12-1.
Futures are your Friend
I will admit that I was dumb enough to not bet Bobby B on Derby Day. Luckily, February Nick was wise enough to sprinkle futures on all of Baffert's horses, turning $20 into a nice $100 surprise after a not-so-lucky Saturday. Next year remember to invest in connections early and you may get rewarded handsomely down the stretch.
Don't Overthink It
Horse racing is humbling. The wise guys can handicap the starters' prep races, clock every workout and still leave the track empty-handed. Meanwhile, Joe Nobody is betting names and numbers and rolling in the dough. I made ten wagers on the Derby race and none of them won more than Mr. Sipi in the 14th race, the name we call my son's toy horse. Anybody can win, as long as you're a little lucky.
Always Bring Cash to the Track
Cash is king, particularly in the sport of kings. You always need to have a little something in your pocket, especially when beers are $10.
'All Inclusive' isn't For Everybody
If you've ever visited a resort in Mexico, you've probably seen the guy who's banging back free drinks poolside at 11 am, then passed out and sunburnt by 2 pm. To cut back on cash exchanges, Churchill Downs made the frontside of the track an all-inclusive experience. A wristband got you all the food and drinks your heart desired. On Thurby I learned that I do not have the self-discipline to enjoy an all-inclusive day at the track. No, I did not overindulge in Mint Juleps. The 17 chicken tenders did me in. "I've gotta get my money's worth" is not the appropriate mindset to have just to "stick it to CDI" for charging $60 admission.
Barefoot is Best
There's nothing like the feeling of Kentucky bluegrass in-between your toes on a warm spring day. To describe it as euphoric is probably over-romanticized hyperbole, but I don't care. After the last year I've come to appreciate the little things so much more, like being able to walk barefoot without the fear of stepping on broken glass from a shatter mint julep cup.
Sunburnt isn't so Bad Either
Nobody wants their skin to feel like the Colonel's Extra Crispy, although there is something kind of nice about the first sunburn of the season. A little red on your forearms and the tip of your nose reminds you that you're alive and soaking up a healthy dose of vitamin D.
A Barren Infield
Just over 41,000 attended the Kentucky Oaks, followed up by just over 51,000 in the Kentucky Derby, about a third of normal capacity. As welcome as it will be to have the normal sell outs, there were a few nice perks to the decreased capacity that will be missed.
Lines for bathrooms and beers were nonexistent. Instead of marching all the way to the first turn to find a spot near the fence, there was plenty of room on the backstretch right in front of the big board to set up shop for the day. At one point Friday afternoon it felt like my friends and I had 26 acres of green space all to ourselves. The lead up to Derby did not feel the same, but the mob-free weekend beneath the Twin Spires wasn't a bad consolation prize.
Masks are not Fetch
WARNING: If you are going to turn the following paragraph into a political finger-pointing contest, you can get the hell outta here. Whether you are on the right or the left, the online COVID police are exhausting.
COVID-19 sucks. Since the pandemic hit I had my first child, then kept the baby's grandparents from seeing it for months because we thought it could kill us. I also got it, then gave it to my wife and probably my baby. It was not fun at all and I had it easy compared to the hundreds of thousands who got sick and lost their lives.
That was 2020. This is 2021.
Like almost every person I attended the Kentucky Derby with, we entered Churchill Downs' grounds with two vaccine shots in our arms and masks over our faces. The masks remained on while grabbing food or drinks for the first day and a half, a polite gesture to the track's workers and other guests. Eventually, a flip was switched. The masks were available, but unnecessary. That was the consensus among pretty much every patron who was willing to live with the potential consequences of unmasking. If a person wanted to continue wearing a mask, fine. No judgment here. I'll continue to politely wear it when I'm in a place of business that asks because I'm not a jerk. I have a feeling that will not be necessary for much longer.
We are Back
Most Kentucky Derbies are remembered by who won the race. It was all American Pharoah in 2015, Mine that Bird's upset in 2009 and Justify's sloppy win in 2018. The 147th running of the Kentucky Derby will not be remembered as the Medina Spirit Derby. This will be the Kentucky Derby that got the world back to normal.
At Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May 2021, it did not feel like we were living in the middle of a pandemic. I made friends from Ohio. I called a college kid an idiot. I tried to cut a Derby-promo with a local TV crew. I asked strangers, "Who's your horse?" I watched somebody stumble off a front porch and almost go face-first into a trash can. I lost my voice screaming "GET UP THE ROAD!" I lost tickets. I cashed tickets. I drank too much. For the first time in a long time, everything felt right in the world.