So I had to eat her plane ticket for breakfast that morning, leaving the question of etiquette for Miss Manners. And no matter, because Heather was all too excited to race to Louisville on her motorcycle at the last minute, though she did needle me a little insistently about why it took so long to hear from me again.
It is really not a bad jaunt straight up 65 from Birmingham to Louisville. We don’t often think about how entirely feasible it is to head straight up the highway and find dogwoods still blooming the first weekend in May, and all the new leaves unfurling their fresh asparagus-green sheaves against a Kentucky blue sky. But we were a little late to see the new shoots of grass still shimmering blue in the first light of spring.
We did see between Louisville and Lexington the most beautiful horse farms in the world (Normandy included, though Kentucky is getting a little tame and fenced-in and I still like a wild Normandy mare amid the mûres, the blackberry hedgerows), and some of these you can arrange to visit, or still pick one up at a bargain for around $3.5 mil on the average.
If you’ve got your own motorcycle, it is no problem to zip around to dinner at the Merrick Inn in Lexington for the Kentucky fusion of Southern cuisines. Even better if you can meet one of your Princeton classmates to dine in seclusion at the Louisville Country Club. You will start to feel like you are part of one of those old fox-and-hound prints in your lawyer’s office, and you will start to form the appropriate attitudes towards horse-racing and whiskey to fill your appointed station and status at the Derby, whether as one of the pre-ordained or as a pretender (but not as a nay-sayer).
The only catch, if you take my advice and head to the Bluegrass one weekend, is that, although you are pretty much headed due north from Birmingham, you are going to cross over into Eastern time. I already knew that because that’s why I was late before to escort Brooke in the Louisville Cotillion — and I am just glad that didn’t happen with Emily in New Orleans.
Fortunately, it was that easy to fill the spot unworthy of her highness — on a bright beautiful day in Louisville while thunderstorms racked Birmingham. And Heather and Brooke made fast friends at the race and bubbled with excitement for the whole 20 seconds or so the horses thundered from the gate and sprayed dirt all over us. And they squealed on the second pass down the home stretch. And thank goodness the seat Emily left me holding was not empty because the cost per second was rather exorbitant.
Tickets to the Derby range from $100 for a groundling to more than $12,000 a seat on Millionaire’s Row — if you can get them. Where we were sitting we did not have all the bourgeois comforts of Churchill Downs, no armchair doilies or waiters in tuxedos handing us our drinks. We had to stand in line to place our own bets, but we did have the absolute best view of the race possible, unobstructed, close to the start and the finish. That’s saying something because Churchill Downs, with pavilions constructed across the infield blocking the view, is maybe the worst track in the world to watch a horse race.
Still, the Kentucky Derby is perhaps the most exciting two minutes in sports, with speed and color on the track, and equal flamboyance in the grandstands. For a marquee event so short, there has to be a daylong buildup and a big gap to fill in the meantime. Unfortunately, that left plenty of time for Heather to question me about what our relationship was and precisely how I would define it after we had not seen each other for four months, the last time Emily wasn’t speaking to me.
The saving distraction in the meantime was the crowd itself. The quandary about who to take to the Derby was instructive, in fact. You really need a different date for all the different Derbys that occur on the same premises. Heather was fine with the biker types and people in funny hats, and also versatile with arrivistes. Tina would thrive in Dallas-like surroundings of the Jockey Club. Emily, though she can barely pay her power bill at the end of the month, thinks strictly Millionaire’s Row, but I am not sure the presence of so many high-strung felines would not prove too disconcerting for her delicate nerves, and she definitely would not have the patience for the press of 160,000 people in every aisle and corridor if you try to move outside of any of the elite sanctuaries.
As far as celebrity sightings, 2008 was a down year. The Queen attended in 2007, so there was bound to be a letdown. Kristina, who could always walk into any Walgreen’s and find Paula Abdul waiting in line to buy a Snickers bar or David Bowie searching for some emergency eyeliner, hasn’t spoken to me since I was late picking her up from her orthodontist appointment in 2004. But even accounting for the lack of celebrity radar, it was a long slide this year from the Queen to Hugh Hefner and the Girls Next Door.
Being an election year, Chelsea Clinton and Caroline Kennedy were also working the stands campaigning. There were some better celebrities, but they weren’t sending out press releases announcing their attendance.
And did I mention there is plenty of drinking going on at the Derby? There was lots of time for drinking and defining, before the vainglory of the crowd subsided and the glorious spectacle of horseflesh and silk unfurled.
The mile-and-a-quarter was over before you could remember where you set down your $9 mint julep. Big Brown, the heavy favorite, won the race. Our humble author, always running strong from behind, rose to Emily’s equine challenge by picking the second and third finishers as well. Picking Denis of Cork for third was a long shot. Sadly, our sentimental favorite and second place finisher, the only filly in the race, Eight Belles, broke both ankles and had to be euthanized after the race, which severely dampened my enthusiasm at proving how grossly I am under-appreciated as a horseman.
They put up a little screen before they euthanized her. Heather cracked up over that and it was all Dostoevsky, death and relationship-definition from then on. For a minute I wished I were away from the Derby and all its pretense, sitting and taking my mint julep back in the thunderstorm with Emily, listening to her tell me she knew it was a bad idea from the start.
As Eight Belles went off in the ambulance, chaos reigned in the line to the cashier’s window. I collected my winnings, which shall remain undisclosed for tax purposes, but if I could deduct the cost of the seats and the unused plane ticket I would come out better. Everyone left with bittersweet excitement, except a healthy number of individuals who remained in the on-premises holding cell for various forms of over-indulgence and over-exuberance. I tried to call Emily to share the bad news and my good fortune. I really was not going to say a thing about how wrong she was about me, but she didn’t pick up. In any case, I know she will remain duly unimpressed.
Former All-Ivy and All-American at a mile-and-a-quarter, Stephen Humphreys is now all washed up as a track star, but still knows a fast horse when he sees one. To encourage a comeback in time for the Beijing Olympics, write firstname.lastname@example.org