Thunderous rapture on a historic bluegrass racetrack

By Richard Edmunds

In a rickety old motel on the outskirts of Louisville, and as a loud thunderclap nearby coincided with an unsuccessful attempt to unlock the door to my room, it was hard not to think of the movie Psycho.

A wild storm and unfamiliar surroundings made me feel ill at ease. I even whistled that famous screechy violin theme while I was in the shower. But at least if Norman Bates did make an appearance I had safety in numbers in this booked-out motel.

Looking at some of my fellow guests, however, this was of little comfort. I appeared to be the only man who considered a shirt an important item of clothing, and people wandered around with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths and sipping from cans.

As I tried to get to sleep on an uncomfortable bed in a room that smelled of stale cigarettes, I thought to myself, "Remember why you're here - it's the Kentucky Derby tomorrow."

The Kentucky Derby was something I'd dreamed of going to for more than a decade. It's an event embraced and celebrated like no other horse race anywhere in the world. It's a truly huge deal for a relatively small city such as Louisville.

The eyes of the world are on the race for those two minutes every year, and the locals make the most of it.

A huge "Welcome Race Fans" sign is one of the first things you see after stepping off the plane and just about every ad and billboard in the city has a Derby or racing theme.

Even my motel, which would hardly be renowned for going the extra mile for guests, offered a free shuttle service.

The racecourse, Churchill Downs, holds a special place not only in American racing but throughout the world.

The history and beauty as you wander around takes your breath away and makes it well worth the effort of fighting your way through the throng.

The gorgeous, century-old Twin Spires, although they no longer dominate the racetrack's skyline in terms of height, still stand out and must rank among world sport's most distinctive and stunning architectural landmarks.

The early races were run in front of a rapidly growing audience as the temperature soared into the 30s.

But the oppressive heat was never going to stand in the way of the bumper crowd having a great day out.

Although the economic situation was clearly not forgotten - a plane circled overhead carrying the banner "Ford: profits over families" - Kentuckians and other Americans flock to the Derby, treasuring it as a chance to enjoy a day at the races like no other.

This year, more than 165,000 did just that - a record in the race's 138-year history.

That crowd brought with them a vast array of hats, which could also be described as an array of vast hats - so much so, that my flight the next morning was delayed as the crew struggled to find room on the plane.

FOR many, the Kentucky Derby experience cannot be complete without the traditional mint julep.

I was tempted to try one myself, but then I saw the grimaces on the faces of people nearby as they took their first sips.

That told me all I needed to know.

As often seems to be the case with major events held in the United States, the Kentucky Derby is not only a celebration of horse racing and of Louisville but also of America. I was treated to no fewer than three performances of the national anthem.

Just before the race came the playing of My Old Kentucky Home, a time-honoured tradition which, by all accounts, is a moving and emotional moment.

My experience of it was slightly tarnished by the loud, discordant rendition provided by a couple of men nearby, for whom the grimace-inducing taste of the mint juleps had clearly been no barrier.

Then, finally, almost nine energy-sapping hours after I arrived at the track, the starting gates crashed open in the Kentucky Derby, the two minutes for which Louisville is at the centre of the sporting world, greeted by a deafening roar from the crowd.

THUNDER is a word too frequently used to describe the sound of horses' hooves.

But there really is no better word to describe the sound of 20 sets of hooves that pounded the famous dirt track in front of me.

With a seat right at the very front, I was almost close enough to have dirt kicked in my face as the 20 horses charged past.

They contained so many of the things I love about the sport - an exhilarating speed duel in front, an unforgettable drive down the home straight, and a stunning, brilliant breakthrough performance from a horse rising from relative anonymity.

I could clearly see the disbelief and euphoria on young jockey Mario Gutierrez's face as he came right past me, returning on board I'll Have Another to a tremendous ovation from the crowd. It was his first ride in the race.

To be part of that unimaginably huge crowd, to witness the stunning spectacle of the Kentucky Derby and to be just metres away when I'll Have Another ran into the history books as the 138th Kentucky Derby winner are experiences I'll remember always.

The unsettling accommodation, the nine hours in the scorching Louisville sun and the strange sunburn patterns resulting from haphazard sunblock application were all absolutely worth it.

I can't wait to go back and do it all again.

- Hamilton News

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