LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The party started early at Churchill Downs for Joe Ochsner, who was sipping a morning beer on the sweaty track infield and picking his horses for the Kentucky Derby. Thrifty travel plans freed up more cash for drinking and betting on a steamy first Saturday in May.
Ochsner, who skipped the Derby during the height of the economic downturn, got together with four friends to kick in $175 apiece to cover the cost of using another pal’s RV. They parked near the track and spent the week in the area.
“It beats a hotel,” said the 43-year-old from St. Louis, who said he was already awash in cash from winnings at a nearby casino boat in Indiana. He planned to invest some of his casino windfall in his Derby favorite, Bodemeister.
“This is my favorite thing to do,” said Ochsner, whose horse was later chased down in the home stretch by I’ll Have Another.
America’s most famous horse race spurred a holiday mood among the massive crowd that gathered to bet, drink, eat and check out the finery. Mint juleps flowed and colorful hats were plentiful. Fashions ranged from cutoffs and bikini tops to pricey suits and low-cut sun dresses.
The 138th rendition of the Derby drew a record crowd of 165,307 people who crammed into the iconic track to watch the race. The huge throng beat the previous record Derby crowd of 164,858 last year.
The festive scene began as soon as the gates opened Saturday morning.
Debbie Rankin, a 54-year-old bookkeeper from Staunton, Ill., was buying two juleps at a time to cut down on trips to the vending stand. She and a friend expected to spend up to $1,500 combined for their trip to Kentucky.
“It’s our vacation,” she said. “This is what we like to do, so we do it. We don’t care.”
Early-morning rain left the grounds soggy, but they dried under overcast skies. Humidity kicked in by afternoon, and highs reached the 80s. By afternoon, tents had popped up throughout the sun-splashed infield.
Laura Snyder was making her maiden trip to the Derby – a last hurrah before getting married this month.
The 26-year-old from Cleveland set up an infield tent with her five bridesmaids.
“We came here for a good time, to have a blast,” said Snyder, who wore a blue T-shirt with the word “bride” printed on it.
Her friends, some sporting straw cowboy hats, wore blue T-shirts with the word “bridesmaid” on them. The group avoided the cost of a hotel by staying with a friend.
T.J. Mehan of Columbus, Ohio, gathered under an infield tent with friends from Ohio, Indiana and Louisiana. Infield tickets, which went for $50 each on race day, made the event affordable, said the 36-year-old Mehan.
“Next to the Indianapolis 500, this is the best tailgate party ever conceived,” Mehan said.
Mehan and friends planned to bet on horses, but were learning the sport on the fly.
“We’re going to throw some horse names in a hat and pick,” Mehan said. “This is a whole new experience for me.”
Laura Penn, 42, of Frankfort, Ky., was attending her 30th Derby. She had already plunked down nearly $100 on wagers before the first race.
As a teenager, Penn used to pick discarded tickets off the ground to look for winners. She expected to spend about $250 on bets Saturday, much of the money accumulated through the year in change jars.
She said there’s no place she’d rather be than on the Churchill Downs infield.
“You’ve got all kinds of people,” she said. “You can be part of the Derby scene without having to spend a fortune.”
Jessica Powell, who recently moved to Louisville from Cincinnati, was experiencing her first Derby with fiance Brian Adams, a Derby regular.
“It’s exciting,” she said while spraying on sunscreen. “The hats, the people. This whole town just goes crazy for Derby.”
They were meeting friends on the infield, but the still-sluggish economy kept the group from being larger.
“We had more friends that would have liked to come today, but with the entry fees and $10 beer they just couldn’t make it,” she said.
Sales were brisk at the Cox’s Smokers Outlet stands at the track. Patrick Grantz, who was working at one booth, said someone had just bought five cigars for $36 apiece.
“People want to smoke cigars when they’re at the track,” he said. “They might not splurge as much on a regular day, but Derby Day is a little different.”
Tressa Ballard of New Albany, Ind., didn’t make it to the Derby until a friend from Kansas wanted to go in the last couple of years. She was watching the crowd put up tents, buy drinks and settle in for a long day in the muggy heat.
One of Ballard’s reasons for coming had nothing to do with the horses.
“It’s the only time of year I’m allowed to drink bourbon for breakfast,” she said.
Far from the partying on the infield, there was plenty of glitz and glamor from Millionaire’s Row to the red carpet.
For some, celebrity sightings were on equal footing with watching the thoroughbreds. A large crowd got peeks at the stable of famous people who walked the red carpet into Churchill. Among them were country singers Eddy Montgomery of Montgomery Gentry, Miranda Lambert, Travis Tritt, Clay Walker and Randy Owen.
Montgomery would not reveal his Derby bet. “If I tell that, it’s going to be everybody’s favorite,” he said.
But Walker confidently predicted I’ll Have Another would reach the winner’s circle.
From the sports world, the lineup of celebrities included New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, Kentucky basketball players including standout Anthony Davis, Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino, tennis players Andre Agassi and his wife, Steffi Graf, World Cup skier Lindsey Vonn and Tennessee Titans defense end Kamerion Wimbley.
Singers included Cyndi Lauper with her two sons, Mary J. Blige, Taylor Dane and Mary Wilson of The Supremes. And from Hollywood, there were Debra Messing, Lynda Carter, Quinton Aaron, Ginnifer Goodwin, Kellan Lutz, Ice-T and comedians Fred Willard and Ron White.
Miss America Laura Kaeppler also arrived as did actor Terry O’Quinn, noted for his role as “John Locke” in the television series “Lost.”
When asked which horse he would bet on, O’Quinn asked: “You tell me?”