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Kentucky isn't just good for fried chicken.....
Not a single cloud stood in the sky over Louisville, Kentucky. It was a majestic start to a day that promised to be of epic proportions. This day, Saturday 7th May 2011, is perhaps the biggest highlight in world horse racing and also for the state of Kentucky and its biggest city Louisville. The big circus had rolled into town and the flavour of the American south mixed in with the rich aristocracy of the north created an odd sense of expectancy and razzmatazz.
First things first for fans of British horse racing you will be familiar with ladies day at Ascot and Aintree, crank it up about ten levels and you have arrived at the Kentucky Derby. The outfits were somewhat outrageous yet at the same time classy. The smell of freshly cut Kentucky blue grass wafted around the famous stands of Churchill Downs. The parade ring was packed on the day of The Oaks as everyone tried to get a glimpse of the spectacular specimen they hoped would make them wealthy.
Speaking of the wealthy, celebrities were packed into the private boxes overlooking the finishing straight as Kentucky Basketball star Terrence Jones, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and Hollywood actress Sandra Bullock were just a few of the superstars spotted by the cameras. The Derby really did have the whole of the USA focused on horse racing and the record crowd of over 110,000 for the race showed exactly how popular the event had become. The favourite “Big Mo” had to pull out two days before the Derby due to injury, leaving the field wide open as punters and bookmakers scrambled to figure out who now had the best chance to pick up the $5million prize.
I myself had quite a successful day on Oaks day, the Friday before the Derby, picking four winners. Whether it was because I have a keen interest in horse racing and genuinely believe I know what I am doing, or due to the fact I was pooped upon from a great height by a bird just as I was walking into the race track I have no idea. Old superstitions certainly run true it seems, but I did like to think I had studied the form guide relentlessly. Either way my winnings from the previous day left me in buoyant mood for the Derby as the carnival atmosphere engulfed Louisville for the entire weekend.
Everywhere you looked local people had turned their cars into taxi’s. Non-permanent paint had been used to write message on the side of their cars and pick-up trucks such as “taxi service to downtown from derby” and “will give you a ride wherever you want…$20.” The hospitality of the people of Kentucky was second to none. Geographically the city of Lousiville itself sits in a very peculiar spot. It is not far west enough to me considered as a city in the mid-west, yet not far south to be considered a southern city. Its just, well, Louisville. The unique brand of laidback homely comforts and bold, brash American business is clear for all to see. This mixture is what makes Louisville and the Derby special. The blending of the old and the new is perhaps apparent here more than anywhere else in the USA.
The day before the Derby we walked into an alcohol shop and upon our arrival we met an elderly gentleman who was handing out free shots of Evan Williams whisky. He had worked at the brewery all his life and was handing us free shot glasses to keep and was pleased that we had visit his home state. He was a true Kentuckan and another native happened to live two doors down from my friend who we were staying with.
This man epitomizes a true sporting hero, in fact the word legend should have been invented just to describe his impact on sport worldwide. He is a powerhouse and symbol of everything that is good about boxing. The man who resided two doors way from me while I was staying in Louisville was indeed the great Muhammed Ali himself. My friends and I were devastated to learn that he was seen walking his dog past my friends house and that we had missed it because we had been sleeping in.
Yet the one morning we could not sleep in had arrived. The morning of Derby day. The first race of the day began at 10.30am before the main event took place at 6.45pm. 11 races were completed on Derby day, but in all honesty only one really mattered. The build up to the event was superb, the chief trumpeter fully decked out in a red riding jacket, high leather boots and a velvet black cap warmed up the crowd with the famous salute to signal the start of the race. Old Kentucky home was then played and sung proudly by those around me and then of course the American national anthem was played. All the waiting was over, the months of anticipation to see which horse could complete one lap of this famous dirt track had built up to create an electric atmosphere.
The race got off to a slow start and it looked as if the spectacle had got to some of the horses as several of them were sweating profusely as they were being loaded into the stalls. Pants on Fire took an early lead and myself and my friends had bet on him so we were delighted to see this. However our joy was short lived as he began to fall back soon after. The race was wide open going into the last bend with a whole host of horses in with a chance of taking the coveted crown. Dialed in, the new favourite, struggled to keep up with the pace but appeared ominously on the outside to make a charge to the line.
But then just as sport does more than anything else, a complete fairytale story emerged. Number 16 Animal Kingdom came from nowhere to cross the line in a blaze of glory, holding off advances from the surging horses behind him. The Derby was Animal Kingdom’s first ever race on a dirt track and he shocked the 110,000 plus in attendance as a 20-1 outsider. British trainer Graham Points was shown on the big screen hugging and kissing his family as he had managed to train a horse which pulled off one of the biggest Derby surprises for several years. My fairytale trip to Kentucky had a fairytale ending. It is a place that I will never forget and one that helped reignite my love for horse racing that has been lost since leaving the UK 4 years ago.