I grew up in eastern Kentucky, a far stretch of the dollar from actually ever attending the fastest two minutes in sports. For my family, Derby Day was always mixed with baseball rather than bourbon, but my grandmother still found ways to bet her quarter and school me in handicaps and trifectas.
When I was an undergrad at Western Kentucky, I went the weekend before nursing school finals to work the Oaks and the Derby with sorority sisters. I think my parents were initially hesitant, but when Nan handed me twenty dollars, her wagers, and promises to split the winnings, it was a done deal. Four girls piled into my Volkswagen Beetle with two books, zero intentions to study, and enough hair products to choke a horse.
Derby morning came really early. 4:00AM early. With wicked thunderstorms. We tried to find a parking spot and managed to lose my car somewhere about a mile from Churchill Downs. By the time we trudged to our entrance, we were soaked. Wrinkled. Rinsed of all enthusiasm… until we were reinvigorated with assignments to serve in the luxurious hospitality boxes. Each in a different suite, we found reasons to visit one another and gush about which celebrities we had seen or who we had even bravely fumbled a “hello” to.
In a bustling, chaotic, seersucker-clad crowd of over 150,000, Nan managed to call the suite where I was working.
“Track is slop,” she whispered.
She was right. That afternoon, Eight Belles went on to cross the finish line behind Big Brown and broke both of her front ankles. Thousands of tears fell as the beautiful horse was hauled from of the track.
Everyone’s Derby experience was a bit different. Some made quite a bit of money off of tips and wagers. The chemistry major ended up selling her sack lunch as her only profit for the weekend. Angie was also certain her foot was broken from standing so long in uncomfortable shoes. We’re all still dear friends even though we refused her ER requests.
On the way out, I stopped to collect Nan’s payout, $6.40. She told me to keep it.
All these years later, my friends and I have all gotten married, had babies, and are just starting this virtual-schooling thing instead of shrugging off exams. Even though there won’t be any fans or temp hospitality workers at Churchill Downs, I’d bet this Labor Day Derby weekend will still be memorable.