All you need to know about Louisville during Derby Week is this: There is, in the atrium of my hotel, a six-story high Pillsbury Dough Boy.
But I'll tell you more about this oasis of frivolity in a desert of common sense.
Barmaids at my hotel wear jockey silks.
Outside the hotel, there is a big brown Cadillac belonging to Rudolph Wanderone, the pool player known as Minnesota Fats. I know that because on both sides of the car are painted the words, "Minnesota Fats, King of Pool."
Three blocks from my hotel, there is a race-track clock. I mean it is a clock that is a race track. It is, I mean, a clock with these statues that go racing around it every hour on the hour. The statues include Daniel Boone with a rifle, the steamboat Belle of Louisville and the explorer George Rogers Clark.
More about the clock: People bet on it. They bet on the races. These eight statues have a race every hour and people come out of their offices Derby Week to stand on the street and bet on Daniel Boone racing a steamboat. The races are computer-directed so the winners are unpredictable.
Five blocks from my hotel, there is a lawyer named Louisville Gates. I call him Louisville Gates. If I used his real name, he would be unhappy. I call him Louisville Gates -- because he is -- a Lousiville lawyer who specializes in gate-crashing.
This will tell you everything you need to know about Gates: We're playing golf one time. We're walking down a fairway next to a busy street.Horns honk, tires squeal at the pain of sudden braking -- and Gates breaks into a sprint through the buses, crying out, "A case, a case!"
Gate-crashing is Gates' true love. He goes to University of Kentucky basketball games by "machine-gunning" ticket takers. By machine-guning, Gates means he whips out his wallet, flashes his badge and moves through without blinking an eye.
"Somehow, they think I'm the governor's bodyguard," he says innocently. The badge is his St. Francis of Assisi schoolboy patrol badge.
The Derby is his Everest. Gates finds nothing harder to crash. This is the big time. This is not your dinky Super Duper Bowl or World Serious. Corporate presidents fly into Louisville in private jets. Celebrities come in big brown Cadillacs with their names on the doors. The local chamber of commerce figures the Derby is worth maybe $35 million to the economy.
We'll get back to Gates, but first you should understand how a two-minute horse race can produce $35 million for a city that, as my distinguished colleague, Andrew Beyer, so delicately put it last year, "could sink into the Ohio River (and) the world would little notice or care."
Andy is wrong, of course. I lived here 12 years. Louisville deserves the $35 million as its fair reward for being the gateway to heaven. Infidels everywhere refuse to recognize that, however, and Louisville is left to its own designs.
My hotel gets $42 a night for my room next to the Pillsbury Dough Boy. On Thursday, the rate goes up. It goes up to $135. And you have to pay for three nights. This is only fair.
Just as the imminence of the Derby makes a room three times as good, so does the horse race double the value of prime rib. What costs $8 on Wednesday costs $16 on Thursday. No one said heaven was cheap.
Of course, there are grousers. Some people don't understand why taxis charge a flat $10 to make a trip that a week earlier or a week later is a $2 ride. Even Jack Klugman, the TV star with a horse in the race, has questioned the worth of Louisville's prime rib.
"All of the writers here, all the trainers and breeders," Klugman said after a banquet early this week, "are asking one question. What was that we just ate? I think I bet on it last week."
Anyway, we were talking about Louisville Gates' assault on the Everest that is Churchill Downs.
Churchill Downs is tough. "You have to be part SOB to do this job," said Raymond Johnson, the Downs' publicity man who is in charge of denying entreaties for tickets. A lot of people think Johnson is overqualified for the job. He is so mean, in fact, that his aura creates rumors.
"Did you hear about Raymond and Ayatollah Khomeini?" a sportswriter asked. "The ayatollah called and said he wanted 52 tickets. Raymond told him to take a flying leap in the desert."
Gates conquered Everest a year ago.
He recruited a very fat man.
He told his 30 buddies to fall in line behind him and the fat man.
As they approached the ticket tacker, Gates told the fat man, "Now."
The fat man fell to earth with a thud.
The ticket taker backed away from the body.
Gates cried out, "Heart attack, heart attack."
As the ticket taker knelt over the fat man, Gates' 30 buddies streamed through the unguarded gate.Gates followed them, telling the ticket taker, "I'll find a doctor."
The fat man, on his back, suddenly came around.He gave the ticket taker his ticket and rose to make a dignified entrance to the world's greatest horse race.
It is, of course, the greatest race. That's why One-Eyed Tom wanted in.
One-Eyed Tom had one eye (the left). He came from Las Vegas. He had never been in a race. He had never been in a starting gate. But this is America. For $1,500, the fee then, any American, one-eyed or not, could run in the Derby.
That's part of the race's greatness. Fifty years ago, the race was run by Matt Winn, a colorful promoter who early on realized that sportswriters were the princes of the earth. Winn was so eager to be in the presence of these princes that he paid their train tickets here, paid their hotel bills and set them awash in whiskey. They wrote nice things. They made the Deby such a happening that 50 years later sportswriters pay $135 a night to sleep next to a six-story tall Pillsbury Dough Boy.
If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, most of the sportswriters here are armed commandos. This is a happening, not a sports event. A writer last year was doing a story on General Assembly, a colt that is a son of Secretariat.
"If General Assembly were to see Secretariat," the writer asked earnestly of the colt's trainer, "would he recognize him?"
Horses know where the oats are, nothing else. One-eyed Tom, so eager to be part of the sport of kings, didn't even know a starting gate. Put into the gate as a test of his Derby fitness, One-Eyed Tom broke smartly out of his space -- and made a U-turn. He ran behind the gate, as if he were a puppy dog hiding after an odd job.
Come Derby Week, a six-story high Pillsbury Dough Boy in your hotel lobby is fairly normal. The thing is a balloon here for a parade. "The Derby is a shared delusion," said Heywood Hale Broun, the TV man of many coats. "All over the world, people care about the Derby. Late on the first Saturday in May, monks at their prayer wheels in Tibet stop turning to ask, 'Who won the Derby?'"
One thing more: The Louisville sports columnist, Billy Reed, ever eager to serve his public, told Andy Beyer he would publish Beyer's hotel room number and phone numbers this year "in case anyone wants to discuss poetry with you."
Beyer dealt with this threat in the best way he could. He shared a betting tip with Reed. The horse paid $64.20. Reed now has offered Beyer a bed in his home.