For May’s Winning Post programme, we headed to Louisville for America’s greatest race, The Kentucky Derby. It was my second time there and once again I was amazed at the scale of the event with both the media and general public.
1 - The racegoers, the enthusiasm!
I know the race has a prominent stature in American culture but it's not just with the sports fan. Almost everyone we interviewed said they were there to tick it off the 'bucket list'. It’s an event that ranks highly on the list of ‘things to do before I die’ in the US and illustrates the sheer magnitude of the event. Even at passport control I was asked for my tip. This year, due to the rain, Derby Day attendance of was slightly down with only 158,000 people there (the record is 170k in 2015). That’s still way more than any other race meeting I’ve been to (Japan Cup has around 150k, while Melbourne Cup and Epsom Derby claim circa 100k) but that’s not the full story. Kentucky Oaks day on the Friday at Churchill Downs attracts around 120k whilst Thurby on the Thursday gets 50,000 through the door. There can’t be many sporting events that attract almost 350,000 people over three days. And they are 350,000 of the most enthusiastic racegoers as well with everyone making huge efforts with their outfits and they are all determined to have a great day!
2 - A two week festival in Louisville.
To some extent Liverpool makes the Grand National feel part of the city but their efforts are small fry compared to Louisville at Derby time. The city is all-consumed by the Derby and holds a two week festival. This includes the nation’s largest annual fireworks event, a Derby marathon (running) as well as loads of other events, concerts & parties. Everywhere you go there is Derby fever. Restaurants change their names to reflect previous winners, jockeys’ silks are displayed in shop windows and above each gate at the airport & there are signs everywhere advertising Derby Day parties.
3 - Celebrities.
We once again filmed at the ‘Barnstable Brown Gala’ on the eve of the Derby. It's just one of many parties held the night before the race and they all have red-carpets and long VIP guest-lists. The likes of Tom Brady, Aaron Rogers, Rickie Fowler, Jeff Bridges & Kid Rock were at the Barnstable Brown party this year. All the celebrities in town assures there is plenty of coverage on gossip websites, magazines & TV entertainment programmes. It all adds to the buzz surrounding the race.
4 - Media presence.
The worldwide press are certainly at Churchill downs, in force. 2,000 media credentials were apparently issued for the race week. At 8am on Thursday morning, two days before the race, there are around 20 radio (from hip hop to country) and TV stations broadcasting their breakfast shows from the back stretch. Turn on the TV and the local stations have wall-to-wall Derby coverage, it seems for the entire week.
5 - Not just the race but the whole shebang.
The crowd aren’t just there for the two minutes that it takes to run the Derby, they want the full experience. People were in town for a few days to soak up everything about the Derby. This includes watching morning track-work during the week (thousands turn up to watch the Derby horses gallop), going to a Derby eve party (if you can afford a ticket!) or having breakfast at Wagners Pharmacy (the traditional horseman's diner next to Churchill Downs).
The Derby is the oldest continuously held major sporting event in the United States and has been staged every year at Churchill Downs without interruption since the inaugural running on May 17, 1875. It’s allure and energy rivals any other sporting event in the US, including the Superbowl. No wonder it’s on so many people’s bucket list.
Hotel - America's Best Value inn - Horrible, don't stay there unless there are no other options. I guess there are very few options on Derby weekend and at least it was close to Churchill Downs!
Favourite restaurant - Wagners -More of a diner (greasy spoon) than a restaurant but all part of the Derby experience. It's like a living museum and THE place to go if you want to bump into any jockeys or trainers. I met Antonio Sano (trainer of Gunnavera) in there.
What to do - Say hello to the 2015 Triple Crown winner, American Pharoh. - Coolmore stud, where he stands, offer tours. It's a fair drive from Louisville but definitely worth it.