“Hunter S. Thompson was just a disappointed idealist,” I tweeted in the middle of Derby week. I had been thinking about his “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved” diatribe that appeared in Scanlan’s Monthly in 1970, more than a decade before I was born, as I watched the races from high up in the Finish Line Suites. From up there everything seems ideal – lovely company, great food, the perfect vantage point to watch the races, and shade from the sun. I’ve never been to the Kentucky Derby but I’ve heard stories about the infield for years, so I feel pretty comfortable saying they are two completely different worlds.
The Kentucky Derby Festival used to take place for the two weeks before the Kentucky Derby. These days there are Derby Festival preview events starting in January, and April is Mint Julep Month in Louisville, so that fastest two minutes in sports has stretched to a monthlong-plus party. It’s a ritual here in Louisville meant to help us shake off the dreary winter, which lasted far too long this year, and embrace the hope that spring brings, forgetting momentarily that the cycle is going to plunge us back into ice sooner than we would care to admit. During Derby season everything is perfect, and even the most fortunate among us will only experience this at most 100 times in a lifetime. Why does the whole city shut down for Derby? Because we are all disappointed idealists clinging to that fleeting Derby feeling.
Breakfast At The Backside
This year I had the awesome fortune to be invited to have breakfast on the backside at Churchill Downs to watch the Derby and Oaks horses get their morning exercise. It was raining gently then, and watching the horses gallop back and forth while shaking off their morning energy was mesmerizing. The jockeys would stop by the fence from time to time to say good morning to us, which was a real treat. In Louisville during Derby time jockeys are our rock stars. (You can see a video of the horses exercising here.)
I learned a lot about the track and about the Kentucky Derby that I did not know before. On Derby Day the infield technically becomes the third largest city in Kentucky. Also, the backside is like its own little city with residence halls, a restaurant, and more.
The best thing is that Churchill Downs actually sells tickets to visit the backside and have breakfast at the cafeteria where the jockeys eat breakfast during the spring meet with the exception of Derby week. You can contact Churchill Downs Group Sales for more info about that if you are interested in doing something that few people ever get to do.
Derby Week In The Finish Line Suites
Brown-Forman invited me out to their suite at Churchill Downs to enjoy a day of racing and sample some new products. Their new Woodford Reserve Straight Kentucky Malt Whiskey will make its debut in June. It’s not a single malt whiskey, which has been taking American craft distilleries by storm lately. Rather it is a malted barley-heavy mash bill which also contains corn and rye, and it is very light and nutty and refreshing. It’s going to be a trailblazer product in a category that doesn’t really yet exist but that we will be seeing more of in coming years. Distillers are looking to showcase American whiskey’s versatility, and malt whiskeys are a great way to do so.
I spent most of the day placing bets as though I knew what I was doing. I lost it all but had a damn fabulous time doing it. That’s what it’s all about, after all.
The Stitzel-Weller Affair
Stitzel-Weller opened on Derby Day 1935 and threw lovely field parties every year. When Diageo reopened the facility a few years ago, priority number one was to bring back those fabulous Derby-Eve field parties. I’ve gone the last three years to the Stitzel-Weller Affair, co-hosted by Blade & Bow and Garden & Gun Magazine, and every year it becomes more fabulous. Beverage service is provided by Hawthorn Beverage Group, known for their top shelf beverage service. This year’s chef was Hugh Acheson of Atlanta, GA and the menu featured pickled shrimp, pork porchetta, and panna cotta. Dessert was a lovely 22 year old Blade & Bow Bourbon.
This is the Derby-Eve dinner you want to attend if you want to feel like you’ve been transported to a bygone era for the evening. Everything glitters with an elegance you can only experience on Derby week in Louisville.
As for me, I’m planning to hold on to that Kentucky Derby feeling as long as I can. I’ve already purchased tickets for Mother’s Day Brunch at Churchill Downs. See you there?
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl