I didn’t give the Kentucky Derby much thought before I moved to Louisville. For most of my adult life, I lived in New Orleans. To a New Orleanian, the first Saturday in May has another meaning entirely. That’s the second Saturday of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. And that means Jazz Fest is winding down. At Derby post time, just about everyone I knew was at the fairgrounds, slippery with sunscreen and sweat, sharing a dusty or muddy blanket with friends, on their second bowl of crawfish monica, trying to decide whether it’s cooled down enough to order a beer while waiting for Elvis Costello or Dr. John to take the stage, or, if they’re lucky, both.
The Derby comes and goes when you’re at Jazz Fest, with most people being none the wiser. I heard rumors of people crowding around televisions inside to watch a live feed of the race, but I didn’t know any of those people. Just a thought: You know what would make the Derby even more exciting? A live feed of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on the clubhouse televisions on Derby Day.
Of course, the crazy thing is that all this eating and drinking and listening to music in New Orleans takes place at a horse track. In fact, it’s the oldest race track in the United States still in operation and a sister track to Churchill Downs, no less.
If you’d asked me back then what I thought Derby was about, my knowledge would have basically stopped at horse racing and roses. I knew about Derby bonnets and Derby hats, but I don’t think I knew people were still wearing them today.
We’ve heard the hyperbolic story so many times: An outsider comes to visit Louisville and is surprised to discover that our roads are paved, our feet are shod, and our cousins are not our husbands and wives. If people have this many misconceptions about Louisville, what do outsiders think of when they think about the Derby?
Maybe it’s because the Derby is nationally televised, or maybe it’s because it’s pretty much stuck to tradition for the past 137 years, but it seems non-natives have fewer misconceptions about the Derby than they do about the city that hosts it
Of the dozen or so Derby outsiders I interviewed for this story, nearly all of them mentioned the great Southern drink, the mint julep, in the same breath as horse racing. Although some Louisvillians denigrate the drink as “touristy,” we still like to claim juleps as a native cocktail. But, in fact, juleps were around long before Louisville and long before bourbon (those words, “before bourbon,” just made me so sad).
Mint juleps likely originated in the Carolinas or Virginia, possibly in the portion of Virginia that is now included in Kentucky. But perception is everything. Mint juleps became an icon of both the Derby and the commonwealth after Churchill Downs transformed them into souvenirs and began selling them in commemorative glasses in the late 1930s.
Scott McLetchie, a high school history teacher, called the mint julep “one of Kentucky’s finest contributions to civilization.” Not quite the truth, but hey, we’ll take it.
Is Louisville Southern or Midwestern? Is Louisville a city of innovation or a city of tradition? Give any two Louisvillians a couple of bourbons and set them to debating the merits of their city and these two questions will nearly always come up. But if non-natives leveraged their perception of our signature civic event as a barometer for our city, the debate is settled: We are Southern. And we are anachronistic.
“To me, Derby is a grand southern occasion, a reason to wear awesome hats and drink minty bourbon in the daytime,” said Derby outsider Beth Hamory, a career mom from the Boston area.
“For some reason I see it in a historical context,” said Alison Marlow, a copywriter from Northampton, England. “I imagine people in long dresses from the turn of the 20th century.”
“My impression is that it’s a posh throwback to the good old days,” added Hamory. “Being a sheltered New Englander, I think of it as the opposite of that other great pastime of middle/southern America – NASCAR.”
“I’ve definitely always had the sense of it as something higher brow and somehow quaint,” said Lorin Oberweger, an author and editor from Tampa, Fla.
Of course, no one who’s ever ventured into the infield of Churchill Downs would associate the words “higher brow” or “quaint” with that aspect of the Derby. In fact, the infield shenanigans are largely lost on non-natives. Oberweger now knows better, after having visited Louisville a couple of times, but still she conjures the Derby with a sense of sophisticated extravagance.
“I guess I see it as a big weeks-long event, culminating in a few minutes of racing…A lot of parties, a lot of celebrities, and then this amazing horse race watched by, it seems, the whole country,” said Oberweger.
Except for New Orleans, that is. McLetchie is originally from Michigan, but was raised and currently lives in New Orleans.
“It’s a horse race, right?” said McLetchie. “Never having been to any horse race, I don’t really have much of a preconception, except that it seems like an awful lot of buildup for a very short actual race.”
Most Louisvillians appreciate the whole Derby season – the festival, the balloon glow, the Chow Wagon, the concerts, the Oaks – and not just the actual race.
“I love the balloon race,” said native Louisvillian Darcy Maloney, a teacher and a writer. “I can remember many Saturday mornings, both as a child and as an adult, waking to see dozens of the silent hot air balloons high or low, near to my roof or far in the horizon. It was always a surprise and always a rush. I also love my Derby morning errands: to Kroger for red roses, to the garden for mint, and to Nord’s Bakery for those soft sweet luncheon rolls – perfect for tenderloin sandwiches.”
But there’s no disputing that the Derby may be most notable for having the longest celebration buildup to the shortest actual event.
Erica Peterson was born in Louisville, but her family left the state when she was 2 years old. She has returned to Louisville to join the news team at WFPL. Peterson has yet to attend her first Derby, but she thinks she knows what to expect: “The most exciting two minutes in sports.”
I was surprised to find that the phrase wasn’t trademarked by the Derby. It should be. We don’t want some other sporting event to come along and make that claim. And certainly the World Luge Championships could give us a run, no pun intended.
I’ve been to two Derbys at Churchill (although I have only been through general admission—I’ve never once put my butt in a seat at Churchill Downs on Derby Day) and to three Derby Day parties, and I still don’t feel like a Derby insider.
As Peterson said, “I hope to not be considered an outsider forever!”
– Melissa Chipman
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