In Louisville, the Thrill of a Lifetime

To be sure, there’s world class architecture in Louisville, but on the first Saturday in May most attention is focused on the finish line below two slate-sheathed spires at Churchill Downs.

Still, the intrepid scout will seek out the U.S. Marine Hospital by Robert Mills; or Farmingon, one of two homes in town attributed to Thomas Jefferson; or Mies’s last design, the American Life Insurance Building on Main Street; or Michael Graves’s Humana building across the street; or out in the suburbs, the Kaden Building, attributed to one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s students.

But by tomorrow they’ll all be non sequiturs.  For tomorrow, Derby is the deal in Louisville.  And most in attendance would agree that, like Mardi Gras, if you don’t do it once in your lifetime, you have not lived fully or properly.

It’s not a cheap commitment. A reasonable box for six is more than a few thousand dollars.

But Derby makes Virginia’s Gold Cup, or Richmond’s Strawberry Hill or any other race run anywhere on this planet look like a sleepy little garden party. 

It’s an electrified, glory-filled atmosphere that ratchets up a tension-crammed notch with every race of the day.   Forty minutes lapse between each, but you’ll never be bored while waiting. There’s simply too much pageantry to absorb completely, on too many fronts.

The women glow. Frozen in my mind’s eye from a Derby past is the image of a ravishing and sun-kissed blonde adorned in wide-brimmed straw hat, live gardenia pinned to its band, an absolutely stunning ode to the Kentucky springtime.  The men also dress correctly: straw boaters, Stetsons, wide-brimmed plantation fedoras, suspenders, blue blazers, juleps in hand, and Cohibas clenched firmly between teeth.

These people are thrilled to be at Churchill Downs, and they know how to show it.

You’ll weep, along with 150,000 other men and women, boys and girls, while you sing out loud to a mid-19th century Stephen Foster tune, way up here in 2011.  When you’re done with that, a massive and unremitting roar of humanity, unlike any sound you’ve ever heard in your life, will begin to swell and rumble all around you, until it peaks in a fevered and frenzied crescendo at the finish line.

Then there’s the wagering, but that’s another story altogether.

For more on the Kentucky Derby, go to

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