Some Kentucky Derby visitors were still squeezing into tight parking spots in small yards near Churchill Downs as others munched on grilled food they had bought from street vendors on their way to the track.
Inside the venue, some of the guests showed off their finest duds, sporting colorful suits and ties, haute-couture dresses and, of course, stylish hats. While many of the men wore leather lace-ups, some took the more comfortable route with sneakers. A few decided to forego style altogether and flip-flopped through the grounds. Many of the women walked in elegant sandals, while others sacrificed grace for style and tried to keep their balance as they traversed the uneven stone walkways in sky-high heels.
Shouts of “beer and bottled water” cut through the wall of sound created by the guests in the paddock area, many of whom sipped mint juleps and some of whom puffed on thick cigars.
Meanwhile on the backside — where the stables are located — the Derby provided an opportunity for a day-long tailgating party involving lawn chairs, grilled meats and lots of drinks and bets. The casually dressed guests on the backside spent lots of time chatting in their circles of friends and occasionally walked to the betting booths and to the fence around the track to get a glimpse of the races.
Andrew Schmitt, of Louisville, stood in line to place some bets in the early afternoon and chatted up other gamblers. The University of Louisville economics major is getting a minor in equine business and said he had been doing research for the last couple of weeks to get a better feel for which horses might perform well.
After he placed his bets, Schmitt headed to barn 16, where he and horse owner Dan Sheridan chatted with a friend, Sam Adams.
Adams, of Atlanta, had been invited to the stables area by Sheridan, who owns racehorses. Adams had arrived in the Louisville area Thursday and planned to leave Sunday. It was only his second time at the Derby, but he said he developed an appreciation for horses as he grew up around rodeos. And he said he preferred the smell of hay on the backside to the odor of expensive perfume on the front.
Sheridan, a dentist by profession, said he has owned racehorses since 1985 and comes to Churchill Downs about 10 times a year. He enjoys the Derby to spend time with loved ones.
“It’s always family,” he said.
His family includes his daughter, Ansley, who will graduate from the University of Louisville in a few days.
Adams, Sheridan and Schmitt headed to the MoQuett Racing barn to get a look at Derby horse Whitmore, but the animal had been taken to the track, so the trio returned to their party near barn 16.
In a small office in that barn, trainer Mark Danner sat with two friends to watch races. Danner, a Kansas native and trainer since 1979, comes from a family of horse racing enthusiasts. His grandfather and an uncle were in the business, too.
His friends Steve Buckman, of Louisville, and Terry Ringle, of Lexington, were studying betting guides to figure out whether they should trust their research — or Danner’s experience. Danner said he had a hard time betting against the favorite, Nyquist.
At about 4:30 p.m., in a little grassy area behind the fence around the track, Jock DeGeorge was helping his family pack up food, drinks, chairs and a tent, as dark clouds threatened to bring the party to a halt.
DeGeorge and family had arrived at about 8 a.m. with three cars full of people. They got entry to the backside because a relative is an agent for jockeys. DeGeorge, a Louisville native, said he had attended four of the last five Kentucky Derby Days. He said he enjoys spending time with family — and betting on the horses.
His family made the right move in seeking shelter: Shortly after 5 p.m., a rain storm sent people scurrying for cover. Gusts of wind whipped dust through the barns and had some guests running after Derby hats. A few horses in the barns whinnied at the commotion, but the storm passed quickly.
Within a half hour before the main event, guests crowded near the fence around the track, with drinks and cameras in hand. When the horses thundered past, excitement flashed through the crowd, but it disbursed quickly, in part because people could not see the finish line. Race enthusiasts consulted with nearby television and cell phone screens to see if their bets were going to net them some cash.
Many visitors headed for the exits, but a few returned to their lawn chairs to hang out a little while longer. In the little office in barn 16, Ringle still sat in his chair a few moments after the race had concluded. He smiled when a guest stuck his head in the door and said he should have taken the free advice from Danner, the trainer, who had suggested that Nyquist stood a good chance to win.
“We always have fun,” Ringle said. “It’s just a matter of do we leave with more money than we came with.”