A Day at the Races

On Friday, Erin says, "I thought we'd go to the track this afternoon." When someone in Louisville says "the track," it means only one thing - Churchill Downs. I had hoped that during our stay, we might get the chance to go to a Louisville Bats minor league baseball game, but the schedule didn't work out to make that possible. Fortunately, going to the track works out to about the same thing. You sit in uncomfortable seats alongside a bunch of strangers on a warm summer afternoon, drinking bad beer and watching something relatively exciting happen every twenty minutes or so. Besides, what's a trip to Kentucky without a visit to the Mecca of thoroughbred racing? Going to Louisville and declining to go to the track seems sort of like going to New York and saying, "Empire State Building? Meh. Who wants to see that?" So, with Frank Loesser's "Fugue for Tinhorns" running through my head, off to the track we went.

Each year when they show the Kentucky Derby on TV, the cutaway shots as they go to commercial are of the tree-dotted rolling hills of the Kentucky countryside. The viewer sort of gets the impression that Churchill Downs is nestled away amongst the horse farms and bourbon distilleries. The truth is that Churchill Downs is right in Louisville, practically next door to the airport. Every five or ten minutes, a plane takes off and flies overhead, so low you feel like you could reach out and touch it. The televising of the Derby also focuses on that genteel "Southuhn" feeling - men in suits and ladies in fancy hats sipping mint juleps. An average afternoon at the track is far from this - some patrons are dressed nicely, some are in tank tops and flip-flops. There is the sense of quiet desperation common to all places where there is gambling. To be sure, most people are just out for an afternoon's entertainment, maybe laying down a few dollars just for fun, maybe just enjoying the atmosphere. But there is the definite sense that some of the people there are silently praying that this is the race where that superfecta bet, the one on which they've got their last two bucks riding, finally comes through for them.

I don't want to give the impression that it's no better than a seedy greyhound track, though. It's a fun and exciting atmosphere. The horses wait in the paddock, where experienced gamblers can look them over with a seasoned eye, or where people like me with no real interest in gambling can simply admire them. They are simply stunning to see close-up, sleek coats and rippling muscles. The red-coated bugler plays the call to post, the horses make their way to the gate, and before you know it, they're off and running. They call the Kentucky Derby "the most exciting two minutes in sports," but it's a fair bit longer than an average Spring Meet race. On an ordinary Friday afternoon, you get "a fairly exciting minute or so in sports." The horses thunder around the track, the crowd gets to its feet as they come around the curve and down the straightaway in front of the grandstand, and just like that, it's over. Some people cheer, some shrug, some tear up their tickets in disgust. You sit and chat while the Jumbotron screen shows races from other tracks or "Wacky horseracing sports blooper" videos. You finish your beer, head down to the paddock, and do it all over again.

After 4:00 is "Happy Hour," which is called that because that's what such things are called, but it lasts until 7:00. The good news is that Happy Hour means $1.50 beers. The bad news is that your choices for $1.50 beers are limited to Killian's and Coors Light. Still, the weather is hot, the beer is cold, and cheap beer is cheap beer. While I know in the back of my mind that I'm at Churchill Downs and should therefore be drinking a mint julep...well, the mint juleps at the bar upstairs are $7.00, and the beers downstairs are a buck and four bits. As I order a Killian's, the lesser of two evils, Emily adds, "And a Coors Light." I am agog. Whenever I drink a beer, be it ale, pilsner or lager, Emily sniffs it, wrinkles her nose and insists that beer tastes like soap. I raise an eyebrow as we walk away from the beer stand, both clutching "souvenir" cups. Emily shrugs - "I wanted something cold and carbonated, and the beer is cheaper than the soda," she says. True enough.

We while away the afternoon, laughing at the strange names owners give to horses - though, how can you see "Igotitigotitigotit" or "Put Away the Halo" in the program and not want to bet on that horse? - and drinking our cheap beers. Erin wins back a few bucks to end a streak of wretched luck and we call it a day. It's not the thrill of a two-out double to save the day in the bottom of the 9th...but it'll do.