On the drive to my apartment, Rick looked out the window and saw a man who was walking clumsily, perhaps drunkenly, while pulling a dog that was missing a leg. The scene was cruel, heartbreaking, ridiculous. It was Rick’s first impression of my state.
And that’s usually how we are: mostly rural, largely odd and shockingly complicated. Our long-standing problems with big issues such as race and education are well documented. We’re weird. We see blue in grass. We love basketball more than we love people. We are known for keeping it real hick, and as much as we despise that stereotype, part of us plays along because it helps the beauty of Kentucky remain a secret, never to be swarmed and overtaken by careless outsiders.
But during Derby week, that mentality shifts. We want to shine. Louisville — the only city in the state that feels like a big city (when it actually claims its relationship to Kentucky) — becomes the most gracious host that any sporting event has ever had. Don’t challenge me on that; I can wield a mean pitchfork. When it comes to tailoring every inch of an area to ensure an unforgettable experience for all visitors, Louisville rolls out a red carpet and throws rose petals at your feet.
Rick shook off that weird introduction and loved his first Derby experience. He has been back several times. When I started dating my wife seriously, I took her to the Derby; meeting the entire family was a mere afterthought. As a Paducah native who lived in Louisville for several years, there is no greater personal holiday than the first Saturday in May. And so, as the novel coronavirus pandemic keeps us in isolation, there is no stronger sense of loss for me than what I’m experiencing right now.
I have attended 11 Derbies. I have partied during the Derby for just about all 42 of my years. My childhood memories are full of gatherings at my grandparents’ house in east Louisville, where the scent of mint was more welcome than pine at Christmastime. My adult memories are even better, from trying to cover the event as poetically as the sportswriting legends I grew up reading to, well, acting a fool in the infield during my college days.
Even in Kentucky, with its beautiful rolling hills and horse farms, this is a niche sport. Everyone is a Kentucky Derby fan, though. Our connection to this event is a very powerful and emotional thing.
Derby week is so grand, and we delight in sharing all of the festivities with the world while fighting to keep the Kentucky Oaks — the illustrious Grade I stakes race for 3-year-old fillies held the day before the Derby — a more local event. But over the past 20 years, even the Oaks crowd has surpassed 100,000 with regularity.
Still, the fancy affair turns intimate when “My Old Kentucky Home” plays before the Derby. We wait all year just to feel alive and relevant in that moment. Soon after, the most anticipated two minutes in sports conclude, and before you know it, the time to clean up and plan anew has arrived.
I like the fleeting nature of this joy. The Derby is our cherry blossom. Wait, wait, wait, revel. Go back to waiting. It’s deflating to know the wait will be much longer this time.
The 146th Kentucky Derby has been rescheduled for Sept. 5. Churchill Downs announced Thursday that its spring meet will open May 16. Fans won’t be able to attend, but the plan is to start racing again. There’s something even emptier about the thought of horses competing in a bubble than human athletes.
And who knows if even that is safe enough? Everything about the resumption of normalcy comes back to this: We are at the mercy of a virus that we are still trying to understand. So the odds of this Derby really being the Derby in September — with 150,000 fans flaunting their style, understanding of color and taste in hats — seem long. If it happens, it may play decently on television, but it won’t be the same.
To me, the Kentucky Derby is a homecoming with a paisley bow tie wrapped around it. We get the floor, and we make it the most majestic floor you have ever seen. Home can be cringeworthy, but it’s also swanky and magnificent. We clean up good for y’all, but mostly we clean up good for us.