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There was a time when Churchill Downs merely declared that the Kentucky Derby crowd was in excess of 100,000 and let it go at that. Now each body is carefully counted, just as the dollars are, and the roses and the julep glasses and this year's TV celebrities, and even the traditions. They have made the Kentucky Derby into formalized, certified, organized Americana.
As a rule, stay clear of anything that is called a festival. If you have to name something a festival, it is not. The Kentucky Derby, God help us, is now part of the Derby Festival, a clich� wrapped in a promotion. " Kentucky Derby" is a registered trademark and would surely be franchised if they could find a way to put ketchup on it. The Kentucky Derby is the feature race on Saturday of Derby Week, but there are other spectacular festival-type things going on: the Pegasus Parade, the Great Steamboat Race, the Fashion Fair, the Derby Ball, crowning the Derby Queen and, for that matter, Derby Days down at the K-Mart. What once was just Friday is now Derby Eve. That's another thing. By and large it is prudent to steer clear of eves.
The governor of Kentucky, Wendell Ford, stood up at a Derby Week dinner last festival time and made an observation. What he said, seriously, word for word, was, "The 100th Kentucky Derby will be the greatest thing that ever happened on the face of the United States." Imagine a grown man going around telling people things like that. Only because the Derby itself is truly special can it suffer such nonsense, survive and prosper.
Becoming formalized, certified, organized Americana has squeezed out some of the Derby's best juices, but it remains wonderfully original, raucous and ebullient. The kids cram together in the infield, sail Frisbees, sun themselves, smoke some grass and do approximately what they would be doing anyplace else. The main difference between the kids and the rich and famous adults in the Millionaires Row boxes is that the kids have a great time and" can't see the race while those in Millionaires Row have a great time and can see the race.
Two things that should never be taken too seriously are horse races and politicians. Always keep in mind (especially you, Governor Ford) that most of the stable workers appear more interested in the race run right after the Derby, than in the greatest thing that ever happened on the face of the United States. This is because they believe, as an article of faith, that the race after the Derby is always fixed. See what the boys in the back room will have.
But we come to praise the Run for the Roses. Under the twin spires, in the aura of the bluegrass spring, any good man will cloud up when they play My Old Kentucky Home and cry outright when he realizes he is standing in one of those rare places where beauty and history bisect for an instant. He'll order a julep or two—not minding that it is corny—and salute a hundred Derbies past and a hundred more ahead.
The names of the past winners of the race are all around the place, and there is a plethora of statistics covering absolutely everything, from Aristides, who ran first in the first Derby, to Warbucks, who finished last in the last one. What follows here is something else: the informal, unofficial, non-festival memories of a few men who were part of the Derby at one time or another. Men just talking about their Derbies, plus selected short subjects.
Sip a julep along. But not that profane festival beverage that is thrown together by men who have on their shelves bottled mixes for banana daiquiris. Remember that when Irvin S. Cobb heard that H. L. Mencken constructed his drink with Maryland whiskey and crushed mint, he warned, "Any guy who'd put rye in a mint julep and crush the leaves would put scorpions in a baby's bed."
There is only one proper way to compose a mint julep, and it was outlined by a gentleman named J. Soule Smith a century ago. His recipe begins: "Take from the cold spring some water, pure as the angels are...."
Sometimes, lacking the absolute essentials, you must make do. Surely that is why, despite intrusions from a mundane world, the Run for the Roses probably gets better all the time. Weep no more, my lady.