The song demonstrates their bond, from the belly to the rooftop of Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby day. Down on the infield, where college boys drink their fill and try to get women to lift their tops just high enough. Up in the skyboxes, where corporate movers and civic recruiters show off Louisville at its finest. Along the homestretch in the prized third-floor box seats, where horsemen watch and dream of someday winning the grandest horse race in America. Back in the jockeys' quarters, where small men try to make it feel like just another day, but a quickened pulse tells them otherwise. In the small towns across central Kentucky horse country, where families throw Derby parties and serve ham and biscuits and drink homemade mint juleps.
Each year on the first Saturday in May they are joined as one when the first horse steps on the track for the post parade and the University of Louisville marching band strikes the opening strains of My Old Kentucky Home.
"It is our right of citizenship as Kentuckians, no matter where we are at the time, to stand and become watery-eyed while they sing the words," says David Hawpe, a columnist and editorial director for the Louisville Courier-Journal.
Says Arthur Hancock III, owner of Stone Farm and Derby winners Gato Del Sol (1982) and Sunday Silence ('89), as well as the son of legendary breeder A.B. (Bull) Hancock Jr., "When the song is played, it's not just moving, it's overwhelming."
The Kentucky Derby has been contested on the same site without interruption for 129 years, longer than any other major sporting event on U.S. soil. It stands at the center of the racing industry, an event that can decide a horse's worth or a trainer's reputation or a jockey's legacy. "No matter how good you are or how many big races you've won, until you win the Derby, you're just another guy trying to," says Steve Cauthen, who grew up in Walton, Ky., and won the race aboard Affirmed in 1978.
The ritual and the power of the race generate emotions that reach into the souls of Kentuckians. In the spring of 1970 Bruce Lunsford, now a Louisville businessman and owner of Madcap Escapade, a 3-year-old filly who could win this year's Kentucky Oaks on the day before the Derby, was in basic training at Fort Lee, Va. "On Derby day I'm sitting in a rec room watching the race with four or five other trainees on this little bitty TV set," says Lunsford. "Dust Commander wins, and I'm the only guy in the room who understands the moment. Boy, not being at home, it was the only time during basic that I was really homesick."
The Derby can be a young Kentucky boy's dream. Hancock was 10 years old in 1953 when his parents came home from Churchill Downs, still talking excitedly about Dark Star's upset victory over the great Native Dancer. Four years later he was at the track in his parents' box when Gallant Man overtook Iron Liege in mid-stretch and then faltered when his Hall of Fame rider, Bill Shoemaker, famously misjudged the finish line and stood up in the irons long before the wire.
On his family's farm in Walton, Cauthen learned to ride astride a battered bale of hay. In 1969 he was nine years old and watched from the backstretch at Churchill Downs when Majestic Prince passed by and then held off Arts and Letters in the stretch. A Cauthen family friend was the outrider for Majestic Prince that afternoon, and after the race he gave little Stevie a rose from the winning blanket. "About then," says Cauthen, "the dream starts to build in your mind."
The Derby consumes the state and the city of Louisville. For the last 16 years the Barnstable twins, Priscilla Barnstable and Patricia Barnstable Brown (former Kentucky cheerleaders and models who were featured in the Doublemint gum ads in the 1970s), have hosted a party that attracts A-list celebrities on the eve of the Derby to the Browns' 22-room stone mansion in the Highlands section of Louisville. Each year several thousand spectators stand outside the gates of the Brown estate, gawking at celebrity arrivals. The party, which is expected to draw 1,200 guests this year, is a fund-raiser for diabetes research at the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville and has raised more than $5 million since 1988. "This is one week when Kentuckians are in the spotlight," says Patricia. "If we didn't have the Derby, we'd all be just...I don't know, renting movies I guess."
Instead visitors flood the city. Paul Coomes, a professor of economics at Louisville, oversaw a study in 1994 and concluded that some 75,000 of the 130,000 spectators at that year's Derby were not residents of the Louisville metro area. "It's our Mardi Gras," says Coomes. "Private jets are parked at the airport. Hotel rooms double and triple their rates. Corporations put on massive parties and use the luster of the Derby as a magnet to Louisville."