Guest Column: Derby Delay

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Living in Louisville this week all I can think about is where I should be at any given moment.

First thing when I open my eyes in the morning – I should be at the barns by now, chasing down trainers for quotes. At 9 a.m. – I should be in the track kitchen grabbing a breakfast sandwich and a horrible cup of coffee. At 10 a.m. – I should be heading to the Media Center to write something about the works. At 11 a.m. – I should be covering the draw. At noon – I should be going to lunch at El Molcajete with Lucas and Amanda and Kelsey. At 1 p.m. – I should be flipping through the PPs looking to bet on something. At 3 p.m. – I should be on the loading dock making sure the Betting Guides arrived. At 5 p.m. – I should be watching the races from the tunnel. At 7 p.m. – I should be having drinks on the porch at Melissa and Kat’s rental house on Central. At 8 p.m. – I should be en route to a dinner or a party. At midnight – I should probably be thinking about how I really should be getting home.

Alas, the one place I should never be during a typical Kentucky Derby Week is at home. From Opening Night to the Sunday after, this week is the whole reason I live in Louisville and I always push myself to make the most of it. I take a perverse pride in saying yes to every invite, getting up early, staying out late, sleeping as little as my body will allow. Next week this city goes back to being a perfectly fine place to live and work. But this week it is – or should be – pure magic.

Where else would I rather be right now instead of in quarantine writing at a folding table in my basement? I’d like to be following horses at the gap by the McPeek barn, where you see so much more and with far fewer tourists. I’d like to be in the Rec Hall stuffing Krispy Kremes from The Salvation Army into my mouth during the break. I’d like to be at the Amoss barn saying hi to all of the New Orleans media that love being here.

I’d like to be in the paddock, surrounded by Thoroughbreds and jockeys and all the people who love them. I’d like to be in Darren Rogers’ office, cracking up over the latest clueless request left on his voicemail. I’d like to be in a box sipping mint juleps with my wife and some art-world luminaries who come every year but still can’t read the program.

I’d like to be drinking keg beer out back at Grant’s house with Tim and Beth and T and a bunch of friendly people I see once every year and never quite manage to remember their names. I’d like to be picking up my brother from SDF and reminiscing about the first time we did this together, in 1999, long before I ever considered that I might live here someday.

I’d like to be at Juliet and Mathias’s annual Derby Pie & Bourbon Party, and yes, those two things are all they serve. I’d like to be at any of the galas or parties that happen every year – the Trainers’ Dinner, Jocktails, Taste of Derby, et cetera. It doesn’t even really matter what the event is; someone just offered me a ticket so I’m there. I’d like to be having a nightcap at The Back Door with everyone else who wishes it could always be this week.

When I moved to Louisville six years ago I worried that Derby might not seem as special. In fact, the opposite is true. Being here for the buildup you get to see how much this race means to the city. So much of Louisville’s identity is borne in our Derby traditions, even for those residents who never go to the track or wager a dollar on anything. It’s the onset of spring and the whole Kentucky Derby Festival, with concerts by the river, the marathon, the steamboat race, the parade, culminating with house parties on Oaks and Derby days and two nights when the city suspends last call until 6 a.m. The Derby sustains the economy, giving many beloved small businesses one huge month that can carry them through the leaner stretches.

Louisville without the Derby is Pamplona without the Running of the Bulls or Munich without Oktoberfest.

For most natives the unofficial start to Derby season is Thunder Over Louisville, the largest annual fireworks display in the country, always scheduled for two weeks before Derby but postponed this year to August 15. Two weekends ago, on a night like every other night of late, one where we probably couldn’t have even told you what day of the week it was, my wife and I were on the couch watching Tiger King. We heard some pops in the distance, loud enough that I asked, “Were those gunshots?” Then there were more pops, and then massive booms much closer to our street. It was 9 p.m., two Saturdays before the first Saturday in May, and it finally dawned on me that all over town citizens were setting off their own pyrotechnics, in tribute to the cancelled show.

Last night I drove my car for the first time in a week, to carefully toss some mail in a drive-through slot at the post office. It was 9:30 p.m. and Bardstown Road was nearly deserted. The weather was immaculate (of course) but all of my favorite neighborhood spots were closed.

I keep wondering what I should do this Saturday to occupy myself. I can’t pretend it’s any other day. There will be a Derby this year, eventually, and it will have a worthy winner. But I’ve already accepted that most of my friends won’t come to town, and we won’t gather at restaurants and bars on Frankfort Avenue and Bardstown, or dance with sweaty crowds at any late-night soirees. It will, however, all come back in a year or two. Louisville will make sure of it, because this horse race is our culture. And when it does come back, God help me, I’ll sleep even less.

Jim Mulvihill, a former member of the editorial team at The Saratoga Special, is senior director of betting information at Churchill Downs Inc.