Jamie Reidy reminisces on his blurry, yet memorable first trip to the Kentucky Derby.
I made my maiden visit to Churchill Downs in1996 (the “Grindstone” Derby, for those in the know) when I was 26. People tell me I had a memorable time; fortunately there are no photos.
That weekend did, however, give me newfound appreciation for the lengths to which people will go to avoid paying for booze.
Living in South Bend, Indiana at the time, I made the four-and-a-half-hour drive down to Louisville with two buddies and a pal of theirs. We were sleeping on the floor of the latter’s in-laws, The “Smith’s.” Basically, I crashed at my friends’ friend’s in-laws’ home.
The Smith’s welcomed us like we were the prodigal son’s prodigal sons. A glass of bourbon on the rocks instantly materialized in my hand. I sipped. I coughed. I smiled politely and inconspicuously exchanged that manly drink for a Bud Light. Having mentally locked down the two oldest people as Mr. and Mrs. Smith, I struggled to remember any other names. That this wasn’t a Smith Family Reunion says a lot about their ability to procreate.
They overfed me. They thrust more bourbon upon me. They shared charming tales of Derby lore. Several hours elapsed quicker than a horse flicking its tail at a fly. I was at the equivalent of a Notre Dame tailgate party prior to a home game against a big rival – only without the faithful bitching about coaching hires and play calls. Finally, I realized a Louisvillian’s reverence for the Derby is more pure than that of any athletic team’s fanatics. Derby Devotees love the event for what it is, not for the validation or self-esteem boost it can give them.
Then the mood in The Smith’s kitchen – why every party ends up in the kitchen, I dunno – changed. I looked around. Mr. and Mrs. Smith had gone to bed. Only their adult children, spouses of Smith adult children and three freeloaders remained.
The kids’ dispositions fluctuated between deadly serious, as if they were surgeons heading into the OR, and maniacal, their eyes gleaming like mad scientists. Little did I know, these people were both.
The kitchen buzzed with well-coordinated activity. In short order, a large cooler rested on the floor and a six-pack each of Sprite and Coke waited on the countertop next to two large ceramic bowls filled with Absolut and Jack Daniels.
Within seconds, each Smith Home veteran grabbed a soda can and began shaking vigorously. My buddies and I swapped looks. Okaaay. Somebody handed us cans. Motioned for us to shake. Before we could even ask, we were told, “You’ll see.”
It had been a long time since I’d shaken up a soda, and I’d forgotten how much fun it is. And when you don’t know why the hell you’re shaking said can – indoors, no less – it’s even more fun.
And then out came the syringes.
Nothing frightens me more than needles; I’ve passed out getting blood drawn more times than celebrities have passed on idiotic names to their children. Even though this was your normal, standard size syringe (5cc), I felt the blood drain from my face. As my one hand shook the Coke, my other hand trembled.
A Smith son walked to the sink with a Sprite in his hand. He didn’t open the can; rather, he rotated the “flip-opener” 90-degrees to the side. One of his sisters stepped toward him with the needle. I searched madly for the door, sizing up my escape route.
The guy held the can sideways above the sink. The woman placed the needle tip directly behind the circle, at “12 o’clock,” precisely where the flip-opener would normally be. With perfect synchronization, she punctured a hole in the top just as he turned the can upside down facing the drain. More correctly, he aimed.
WHOOSH! The Sprite exploded downward with the force of a fire hose. In seconds, the can was empty. My freeloading friends and I stood with our mouths agape.
“It’s physics!” a Smith son explained gleefully.
Actually – I’ve since learned – it was chemistry first, then physics.
Shaking up the can caused the carbon dioxide molecules to expand, which increased pressure inside the container. Turning the can over moved the heaver liquid to the bottom (technically, the part with the holes) and trapped the lighter CO2 at the top (technically, the bottom). Puncturing the can caused the bubbles to fight like hell to escape from an area of higher pressure to one of lower pressure; the carbon dioxide, then, forced the liquid out of the needle hole, resulting in the amazingly quick emptying of the can.
Next, Needle Lady dipped her weapon into the vodka and filled the syringe. We watched in confusion as she inserted the tip into the can’s new tiny hole. She pushed down on the plunger, and then stepped back with a satisfied smile.
We still had no idea what the hell was happening. Without a word, her brother picked up the can and, with deliberate movements even we could follow, rotated the flip-opener back to its normal position.
Cool! Awesome! So, uh, why’d we do that, again?
“Security’s a total bitch at the track.”
“Total Nazis. They search everybody for booze before you go in and confiscate whatever they find.”
“It’s like trying to get into Fort Knox” a nice reference, since the famed gold depository is close to Louisville.
The words faded. The fluorescent light hummed. Finally, our eyes lit up.
Aha! With the flip-top covering the needle hole, the sealed can of Sprite looked just like a… sealed can of Sprite! Undetectable when searched by security guards with a hard-on for illegal alcohol.
I raced to the sink with my can of Coke like an overeager second grader. Next!
Alas, the original mission was not yet complete. 5cc of vodka equals one teaspoon. Six teaspoons make up one ounce. Filling a 12-ounce can, therefore, required 72 teaspoons of vodka…or, approximately 14 more doses from the syringe.
And we needed to fill five more Sprite cans and six more Coke cans after that. Ugh. The freeloaders’ excitement bottomed out. As usual, alcohol would keep us up late, but not for usual reasons.
The next morning, The Smith’s house shook on its foundation. Derby Delirium pulsated through every room. A Mormon animal rights zealot would find it difficult to resist knocking back a Mint Julep and placing a wager on a Thoroughbred.
Upon arrival at Churchill Downs, the Yankee in me fully expected a security force consisting of Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane bossing Enos around. My smirk vanished when I spotted a dead-ringer for Blind Dick, the scary prison guard with the mirrored sunglasses and shotgun who never speaks in “Cool Hand Luke.” Gulp.
Every athletic venue in America prohibits ticket holders from bringing outside alcohol onto the grounds. Apparently, though, the good people at Churchill Downs really mean it. Forget about Fort Knox; this was like Frodo trying to get the ring back into Mordor.
Outside the gates, dozens of Kentucky State Troopers in sharp uniforms stood ready. The officers politely asked ticket holders to open their purses and sport coats for examination. Coolers were pounced on and thoroughly searched. Behind the troopers sat industrial construction site-sized dumpsters. We arrived at 11:00 am; the dumpsters at our gate were already half full.
We had nothing to fear, though, thanks to our lengthy operation the night before. I strolled in feeling like the bad guy in “The French Connection.”
We had tickets for the infield, the grassy area within the track’s inside rails. Think “cheap seats,” only without seats. Also, on Derby Day 1996, the grass was actually mud, thanks to days of steady rain.
No matter! We had outsmarted Kentucky’s finest and, dammit, we were going to bask in the drunken glow of success. We laid down our tarps and blankets and sent runners to fetch actual fountain sodas from the concession stand – Cokes to mix with the Jack Daniels and Sprites for the Absolut. Drinks in hand, we toasted our ingenuity and incredibleness.
“Now, now, NOW!”
We swung our heads toward the yelling and spotted four college kids looking around nervously. What are these guys up to?
All four dudes sported the standard frat boy uniform: golf shorts, Polo shirt and baseball cap with the shaped brim. The youngest guy, clearly a freshman, wore shorts ten sizes too big for him. Not like the hip style of baggy – he resembled a kid wearing his dad’s shirt as a smock in art class.
These guys carried no coolers, chairs, tarps, or blankets.
Suddenly, the Pledge unbuttoned his parachute shorts and dropped trou. This elicited gasps and giggles from our girls. But this frat boy wanna-be wasn’t interested in flashing older women. Underneath his shorts he had on black biking shorts. All our eyes bulged in shock. Not because of his bulge in the Spandex.
This dude had duct-taped four “fifths” of Jack Daniels around each of his thighs!
Instantly, two of his buddies dropped to their knees and began unwrapping the duct tape with the speed and precision of a NASCAR pit crew. As the lookout craned his neck for Johnny Law, the two wheelmen cranked and cranked. In less than a minute, the Pledge pulled up his shorts and the four ran off, giggling insanely like Golum after he’d finally got the ring back and fell to his fiery death in Endor.
We stood dumbstruck and stared long after they’d been swallowed by the drunken mass of humanity. Did that really just happen?
Four hours of painstaking work went into our foolproof operation. And it was – foolproof, that is. We fooled ‘em. The state trooper checking our cooler spent all of three seconds before waving us through. But these fucking kids put, what, 20-seconds of drunken thought into their scheme? They undoubtedly had a lot more fun than we had the night before, too.
The Freeloaders found it tough to rally after that. The scattered rain showers dampened our spirits, no doubt. Unexpectedly running into two of our recently ex-girlfriends cut an artery in our enthusiasm, too. But it was The Infield itself that did the most damage to our bon homie.
The producers of the television staple “Cops” could film an entire season of their drama in the Infield on Derby Day alone, except for one thing: the lack of double-wide trailers and people of color. Mud fights are probably fun if you actually want to be in one; unfortunately, participation is not always voluntary. I like “wife beater” tank tops, but not when they reveal poorly tattooed breasts or adorn guys who actually beat their wives.
And… I didn’t even see a horse! I’ve spilled out of Wrigley Field on several occasions without knowing if the Chicago Cub had won or lost. Such behavior is considered acceptable, even charming. But to exit Churchill Downs without having laid eyes on a thoroughbred all day long? That just didn’t seem right. So I pledged to return.
Took me eight years, but I finally made it. And I’ve been back seven of the last Derbies, and I hope to witness the next thirty.
GMP readers, add “attend Kentucky Derby” on your Bucket List; you’ll thank me.
Who has been there???