The Kentucky Derby
Lead feature for GQ magazine, May 2008
Her Majesty The Queen is crawling through the ghetto on her way to the 133rd Kentucky Derby. Her Rolls-Royce, with its little Royal Standard flapping above the grill, is snaking past endless liquor stores, titty bars and shabby, one-storey clapboard shacks on the south west suburbs of Louisville, Kentucky.
As a police cordon blocks off the traffic ahead of her to ease her transit, she glides past red-faced Southern bubbas as they barbecue hunks of meat on their porches; past the black families selling bottles of Budweiser from huge trashcans filled with ice; past the old ladies filling up jugs using old family recipes for the perfect mint julep, with their various configurations of bourbon, mint, sugar and water. If she wanted, Her Majesty could stop by at any number of strip bars that line the streets (“Only High Class XXX Fillies!”), or park her Roller in any one of the gardens that surround the racetrack, whose residents rent out every square inch of lawn for 10 or 20 dollars an hour on Derby Day (“back up, ma’am – don’t you mind them tulips”).
The locals wave and smile at Her Majesty, even if they’re not entirely sure who’s behind the bulletproof casing of her car. Actually, they wave and smile at each and every one of the hundreds of vehicles that pass their homes, the endless stream of Daimlers and Bentleys and Lexus limos and tourist buses and SUVs as they trundle slowly towards to the Churchill Downs racetrack.
Once a year, on the first Saturday of May, sleepy Louisville is roused into life by the Kentucky Derby, “the most exciting two minutes in sport”. It’s the longest running sporting event in the American calendar, something that dominates every TV channel for days in advance. In a country that’s oddly proscriptive about gambling, it’s the one time of year that national and local newspapers are filled with tipsheets and racing supplements, the time when horseracing commentators are invited onto talkshows to discuss the merits of turf-trained horses on waterlogged dirt tracks, to talk fractions, furlongs, Beyer Numbers and perfecta wheels to baffled viewers.
It’s tempting to describe the Kentucky Derby as America’s biggest horse race – as historic as The Epsom Derby, as populist as The Grand National, as posh as Royal Ascot – but it’s much, much more than that. It’s the FA Cup Final meets the Boat Race on the day of the Calcutta Cup. It’s Christmas and Glastonbury and Oktoberfest and the Chelsea Flower Show and the Henley Regatta all melded into one. It’s big news. Half of Hollywood seems to be here, as is much of uptown Manhattan, oil-rich Texas and lots of old money from the Midwest. There are actors and rock stars and hip hop impresarios and captains of industry and oil magnates and NBA legends. Flights into the area, hire cars and hotels are fully booked for months in advance. More than 100,000 people are drawn to the twin spires of Churchill Downs race track on “Derby Eve” (yes, they call it that) for the Kentucky Oaks the Friday before Derby. A day later, for the actual Derby itself, Churchill Downs is packed with around 160,000 punters. That’s more than two whole Wembley Stadiums.
Americans take pride in the Kentucky Derby as a symbol of classlessness, but it’s not hard to notice the way in which the vast crowd is neatly stratified into several social groupings in different parts of the racetrack. The red-faced southern bubbas, who’ve paid 40 bucks for a general admission ticket, have come to spunk their money away in the functional, concrete “wagering windows” that line the entry point. Thousands of beer-bellied local jocks and Midwest students are congregated on “the infield”, the area enclosed by the oval track, where they largely ignore all 12 of the day’s races and instead swig their smuggled-in bourbon, smoke cheap hash, guzzle four-dollar hot dogs, snog on the patches of damp grass, spray beer on girls T-shirts and pause only to vomit in the toilets.
Slightly better dressed but just as drunk is the crowd that congregates around the picturesque quadrangle behind the grandstand called the Paddock Plaza, where crowds watch the horses being saddled and where shrieking groupies fling themselves at the shockingly tiny jockeys before they mount. By the side of the racetrack, at the lowest level of the main stand, are the Midwest bourgeoisie who’ve paid $185 for their tickets, the men in seersucker suits and straw boaters, the women in printed frocks and Carmen Miranda headwear. The few black and Latino faces you see tend to be the itinerant vendors, weaving through the terraced seating with enormous trays around their necks like old-style cinema usherettes, selling seven-dollar bottles of Bud and mint juleps at nine bucks a shot.
The tickets get more and more expensive as you go up each floor of the main stand to get a more panoramic view of the racetrack, until you reach a balcony on level five called “Millionaires Row”. This year there’s a positively surreal cast of VIPs, where Her Majesty The Queen rubs shoulders with Ivana Trump, Michael Jordan, OJ Simpson, DMC from Run DMC, Gene Simmons from Kiss, his Playmate partner Shannon Tweed, and someone who claims to be the President of Latvia. This is the Queen’s first visit to the Kentucky Derby, although she keeps a few thoroughbreds in Kentucky stables in addition to her Newmarket nags. As an owner and breeder of competitive thoroughbreds, she’s not won a major British race in 30 years, and barely made a dent on the American circuit. Still, her presence has provokes some excitement: on the infield there are dozens of Union Flags, several ostentatious Freddie Mercury-style crowns and even a few people dressed as Beefeaters.
There are many differences between Britain and America. They don’t get Chas and Dave, we don’t get Hootie And The Blowfish; they laugh at our bad teeth, we laugh at their obesity, their milk tastes funny and ours is nice. When it comes to racing there are other differences. We say “DAR-bee”, they say “DURR-bee”; we race on turf, they race on dirt tracks; they always race anticlockwise, we’re not fussy; we say “reverse forecast”, they say “exacta box”. But the main difference is that America – the land of unbridled capitalism – actually becomes hugely Soviet when it comes to gambling. There are no betting shops or gambling websites in the United States, making it much, much easier to buy a bucketful of semi-automatic firearms than it is to place a wager. In the land of the free, you’re simply not allowed to bet unless you come to the racetrack. Americans are shocked when you tell them that there’s a bookies on every British high street. “You have BETTING SHOPS? And no tax on betting? That’s so glamorous!” exclaims Sandra from Shelbyville, Kentucky, who comes to every Derby with her father and who has clearly never visited my local fleabitten, piss-stinking Ladbrokes.
This attitude to gambling lends a certain illicit thrill to proceedings. In 1970, the legendary gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson – himself a native of Louisville – made his name with a feverish essay entitled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved”, where he tried to draw connections between the drunken depravity of the infield and the bourbon-sozzled “whiskey gentry” in the clubhouse. In reality, you find neither decadence nor depravity at the Kentucky Derby. Even the famously bacchanalian infield seems pretty tame compared to your average Royal Ascot, where you’ll haughty sloanes in Laura Ashley frocks will be staggering around and pissing themselves come 5pm, where brash City boys will offer a waitress 500 quid to feel her tits. You don’t find that kind of thing in genteel, easy-going Louisville. When a fat, tattooed Kentucky drunkard vomits on your shoes in the infield, he at least has the grace to apologise and call you sir.
The most decadent thing I had was a $1,000 mint julep – a shamelessly gimmicky version of the Kentucky Derby’s signature drink, this one containing a big slug of 50-buck-a-bottle Woodford Reserve bourbon, crushed ice flown in from Bavaria, brown sugar from Australia and some mint that had, presumably, been handpicked by the Pope. The whole package – with its impressively large carbon footprint – is drunk through a silver straw from an individually cast golden tankard, each one bearing the name and year of a different Derby winner. I queued up at the bar to sample my thousand-buck booze. Like all mint juleps it was a waste of decent bourbon – too sweet, too bitter, filled with horrible lumps of mint and not nearly as nice as Cuban mojito – but dammit, it’d be wrong to drink anything else here. Ahead of me in the queue was a brash, wealthy Kentucky colonel wearing a linen suit and a cowboy hat, flashing his platinum AmEx card across the counter and buying a mint julep in a gold tankard emblazoned with the name Swaps – the Derby winner of his birth year, 1950. Behind me was a tattooed Kentucky native in shorts and a T-shirt called Dwayne, also queuing up for a tankard with his birth year, 1963. Dwayne wasn’t rich – he lived in one of the clapboard shacks that line the route to Churchill Downs – but was happy to invest a month’s wages on this single drink. “I got a whole room in my house devoted to Derby memorabilia, sir,” he tells me. “This tankard’s gonna be pride of place.” Dwayne can – and does – recite every Derby winner since the year he was born.
Like so many race fans here he’s happy to watch horse-racing without having any money on it. It seems a meaningless enterprise – one recalls the Spitting Image sketch where the bored commentator announces “it’s a brown horse, followed by another brown horse, oh there’s a grey horse” – but that’s exactly what millions of Americans do. Without legalised betting to liven things up, Americans construct a compelling soap opera around the races. The Kentucky Derby thrives on such narratives – drunken has-been jockeys back for one last tilt at glory, write-off nags that pick it up out of nowhere, skint owners who’ve staked their farm on a gee-gee and come up trumps.
A couple of years ago, a 50-to-1 longshot called Giacomo was the biggest outsider to win the race in nearly a century. And then there was 1999’s rank outsider Charismatic, whose washed-up jockey Chris Antley steamed out from way out on trap 16 to win the Derby, went on to win the Preakness Stakes – the second race in America’s prestigious Triple Crown – and then narrowly failed to complete the Triple Crown at Belmont. Tragically, Antley was found dead only weeks later. Most dramatic of all was last year’s Derby winner Barbaro, who became the biggest star in America sport following his sensational six-and-a-half lengths victory at Churchill Downs. Two weeks later he was poised to win the Preakness when he fell on the first lap, his right hind leg shattering in 20 places. After six months of intense surgery and massive public attention, he was put down in January 2007. Now America needed another fairytale, another narrative to make the Kentucky Derby come to life.
The youngest son of Louisiana sugar cane farmer, 40-year-old Calvin Borel had dreamed of winning the Kentucky Derby since he first jumped onto a horse at the age of 8. It was then that he started working for his much older brother Cecil, a trainer. He’d devote long days at the track, going to sleep at midnight and rising at 3am to clean out the stables. Borel cannot read or write. He stopped going to school at the age of 12 after shattering his knee in a riding accident. Since then he’s had his spleen removed, been knocked into a coma and suffered 32 different bone fractures. None of this has put him off the sport, neither has it stopped him earning more than $5million in mount earnings for eight of the past 10 years. Still, after eight attempts, he’d never won the Kentucky Derby. Borel is something of a folk hero among working class race fans, but his unglamorous upbringing never made him a big name. Sometimes trainers would substitute him for a star jockey minutes before a big race.
“I don’t know why Calvin’s never gotten the kind of publicity as the big guys,” says his brother Cecil, who virtually brought up Calvin from an early age. “I guess it’s because we’re coon-assed country boys. That’s the only way I know how to put it.” In 2006, trainer Carl Nafzger offered Borel the chance to saddle a young mahogany colt called Street Sense. Borel felt an affinity with his horse, and went on to ride him in all seven of the colt’s races, including an impressive win in the two-year-old’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Stakes. “You learn from the horse, the horse learns from you,” he says. “No one knows this big guy as well as me.” Even though no Breeders Cup winner has ever gone on to win the Derby, Street Sense went into the race as a favourite. However, reports in the run up suggest that the horse is looking a little shaky. “I’m rooting for him,” says Paul McGee, a trainer based on the same Kentucky Trackside stables as Carl Nafzger, “but I’ve got my doubts. I’ve been watching him every morning and he looks a little hesitant. You put him up against a big field of 20 horses, all kicking dirt in his eyes for a mile and a quarter, and I can see him being terrified.”
As the 133rd Kentucky Derby starts, it looks like Paul McGee’s reservations were correct. Street Sense reluctantly limps out of his number seven post and, as we get to the first turn, he’s joint last, way at the back of the field. He stays there for the length of the backstretch straight.
And then something extraordinary happens.
Going around the last bend, Borel hugs the inside curve and starts to eat up the field, sneaking through the gaps that seem only inches between the horses ahead of him and the rail. Hugging the rail is Borel’s speciality: earned him the nicknamed “Bo-rail”, and it’s the route he took with Street Sense to win the Breeders’ Cup and the Tampa Bay Derby. As they complete the last bend, Borel has, to the astonishment of the crowd and his fellow jockeys, moved from 19th place to fourth. Most horses get progressively slower with every quarter mile they run, but Street Sense’s “fractions” – as they say – are getting faster and faster. Street Sense eases past the highly fancied Sedgefield (ridden by the prodigious French jockey Julien Leparoux), past the favourite Curlin, past the surprise front runner Hard Spun (who only seconds ago looked like he had the race sewn up), and into the lead.
“He knew just what to do,” says Borel. “He doesn’t need a whip or nothing. You put him there and he just *runs*. He has never, ever, ran a bad race. Once I was on that final straight I knew it was just a matter of how far he’d win by.” In the end Street Sense wins by a full two-and-a-half lengths. Borel is in tears. “It’s the greatest moment of your life to win the Kentucky Derby,” he sobs in the winners enclosure. “It means everything in the world. I never dreamed I’d be here.”
The crowd are cheering and whooping, even those who didn’t have a penny on him. Street Sense flutters his eyelashes coquettishly. All thoroughbreds – with their delicate wasp waists, huge racing-car-engine lungs and elegant muscle detail – look beautiful, but being in the winner’s enclosure of the Kentucky Derby, draped in roses, confers a peculiar beauty onto any horse. Suddenly the clouds part, and Borel’s yellow and blue harlequin livery shines against the bright sunlight. “This is truly the sport of kings,” he declares. Her Majesty smiles and raises a mint julep.