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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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From My Window

Issue Date: May 18, 2022

Jane Thibodeau Martin

Derby

**********

This month, Mike and I celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary (two years late) by doing one of my "bucket list" items ?? attending the Kentucky Derby, the most famous of American horse races.

It lived up to my expectations ?? tradition, history, gorgeous horses, and 150,000 people at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Every year starting in 1875, on the first Saturday of May, 20 of the nation's best three-year old racehorses battle it out for a mile and a quarter. Many people, like me, are there to see the graceful, high-priced Thoroughbreds run nearly 40 miles an hour. Others are there because they enjoy gambling. And a lot of people, maybe more than half, are there for the party. I am from Wisconsin, and I've seen some hard partying at Packer and Brewer games, festivals, and concerts. And I was blown away at what I saw there. That's quite a high bar. I believe there are plenty of people who attended the Derby who never watched a single race ?? or, if they did, they probably didn't remember it the next day.

The Derby is noted for high fashion, and hats. We got a lengthy communication in advance about dress codes for various on-track venues, in three categories. Imagine that, a dress code for sitting outdoors. "How quaint!" I thought. After carefully scrutinizing the dress code and the weather forecast, I opted for dress slacks and an effective raincoat for Friday's preliminary races. Since it rained hard on and off all day, and there was plenty of mud, I was grateful I had dressed as I did. I saw about four other women in slacks. Every other woman was in beautiful dresses, high heels, and remarkable hats. I felt like a partridge that somehow got tossed into a big pen full of peacocks. BUT I was dry and warm. And I wasn't chasing my hat around after it got blown off by the gusty winds like others were.

Day two, Derby day, was quite chilly and windy. I again opted for slacks and added my hooded light jacket with flat-soled shoes, adequate to meet the dress code but nice and warm. I bet some people figured I was there working. That's okay ?? I gotta do me.

The men also had some notable attire ?? loud print suits, hats festooned with horses, wild shoes and lots of big, stinky cigars. There were many notable celebrities and an ex-president doing a fund raiser up in suites; but I didn't pay any attention since I was there for the four legged celebrities on the track, although I was a bit star struck being so close to the elite trainers, race analysts and jockeys I'd watched on TV so many times.

To be a successful jockey, you need to be a tiny but strong human. In order to make the race as fair as possible, each horse carries the exact same weight. The weight consists of the human jockey, and his/her saddle and stirrups. All horses in the Derby carry 126 pounds, but in races for two year olds, the total weight can be as little as 118 pounds. Saddles and stirrups usually weigh between one and four pounds. These aren't the big, heavy western saddles you are probably familiar with. They are more like a scrap of leather. Do the math, and you see that a jockey can't weigh more than about 116 pounds ?? and that means an extreme diet and exercise regimen. Years ago all jockeys were men but there are women riders now too, including a Marinette alumnus. Kudos, Kali!

We had great seats, right on the rail just past the finish line. We spent a lot of time visiting with another couple in our box. The man was a deep thinker. As a preliminary race of 12 horses thundered right by us, he said, "imagine how intimidating the charge of a mounted cavalry must have been to a man watching it approach. You feel the sound of the ground shaking beneath the hooves right in your chest." And you do. The horse transformed transportation, agriculture and war across the globe. It is easy to forget the enormous debt we owe them.

In the end, it was a stunning upset for the big race. A horse that got into the race on Friday morning because the 20th horse qualified was withdrawn at the last moment didn't interest the betters. He went off at 80-1 odds, against a field of bluebloods that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars as youngsters. His owner paid $30,000 for him ?? a pittance in comparison. His jockey was a virtual unknown from Ohio who never rode in Kentucky or in a big race before. Rich Strike went from third to last in the field of 20, to first at the finish line like he was rocket powered. It was electrifying to watch. The crowd was totally shocked, as was I. Had you put a $2 bet on #21, your return was $163.60. The horse, in two minutes, won 1.86 million dollars. That's astonishing for a $30,000 ex-claimer horse. Someone will write a book about this horse, I'll be first in line to buy it.

Before we left Kentucky the next morning we attended Mass at a nearby church. The priest, a delightful man, made a joke about being "schooled" by a senior priest at his parish about not bothering to have Mass on Saturday night on Derby day. He said on arrival to the parish that he had questioned the senior priest, "Isn't it important that people make time to attend?" The senior priest said, "It is. Enjoy all four of the parishioners who will be there."

The Derby brings millions into the Louisville economy, and I have to say nearly every single person we met was hospitable and accommodating. Even the people at the Derby who were on their third mint julep were usually considerate and I saw no rowdy or out of line behavior. (Caveat: I didn't watch the crowd in the infield, which is famous for being the hardest-partying and rowdiest of all.) I had about three sips of the signature drink. It tasted like a glass of straight bourbon with a mint leaf floating in it, if you are curious.

Mike and I are fortunate to have been able to witness the spectacle and it was certainly a finish for the ages. I will forever have a story of the horse race I watched which was the equine equivalent of the "Ice Bowl" Packer game, absolutely legendary.

Book I am reading: "Long Way Round" Through the Heartland by River, by John Hildebrand. Non-fiction. A man, exploring the rivers in and around Wisconsin via a square stern canoe, while simultaneously exploring the culture we are part of ?? some of it to be proud of, but not all of it. It is like looking at yourself in the mirror, for good and bad. So many familiar names, so many interesting interactions. Lovely and thought-provoking, very well written.

You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: JanieTMartin@gmail.com.


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