Run from the Roses

Run from the Roses

The closest I ever got to being a jockey was in the fourth grade when I took a pony ride at the county fair. My parents let my sister, Jan and me each climb onto harnessed ponies that spent their entire workday trudging around a small circle, led by cowboys (wink wink). For 50 cents, kids could saddle up, ride a pony for two laps, dismount, and head off in search of funnel cake.

Run for the Rose Bowl

So, it should come as no surprise that the first time I heard the term Run for the Roses, I mistakenly thought it had something to do with Big Ten football and a run for Pasadena. But I guess that would be Run for the Rose Bowl.

Now I know better. Run for the Roses refers to the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday of May. Horses run a one and one-quarter-mile race at breakneck speed for the privilege of having a huge wreath of red roses hung around their neck. I have a feeling the 20 horse contenders are much more interested in a cube of sugar and a nice nap than a rose necklace. But since I don’t have access to Mr. Ed to confirm that, I could be wrong.

Everything I knew about Kentucky

Even though Illinois and Kentucky share a border, I don’t know a lot about Kentucky. In fact, besides the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, here’s everything I know about Kentucky:

• It’s called the Blue Grass State because the soil is so rich, the grass looks blue. Or bluish.
• It’s the home of the University of Kentucky Wildcats—famous for basketball.
• Kentucky is probably not against smoking and drinking. It’s hard to be when a big cash crop in the state is tobacco and a lot of jobs are dependent on Kentucky bourbon.
• Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin in Hodgenville, Kentucky.
• It’s famous for fried chicken. As in Kentucky Fried Chicken.

All eyes on Churchill Downs

This weekend, all sports channels will have their eyes on Churchill Downs for the Run for the Roses. Churchill Downs started 140 years ago in 1875 by John and Harry Churchill. And before you ask, they were not kinfolk of Winston. Winston was born a year earlier, in 1874, but at the age of one, the only thing he’d done to garner attention was sleep through the night—hardly worthy of having a racetrack named after him.

As 50,000 people pour into the seats at the racetrack for the first of three Triple Crown races, 100,000-plus sit on blankets or folding chairs for what’s been called “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” General admission ticketholders can carry in soft drinks or food in clear plastic bags or containers but are strictly forbidden from bringing canned beverages. Technically, the rules say No Cans, which would also prohibit canned green beans or canned tomato soup. Also, on the verboten list are illegal substances, alcoholic beverages, fireworks, pepper spray, weapons, remote controlled aircraft, animals, and umbrellas. So, no canned goods and no drones. Got it.

People sitting in the trackside Turf Room restaurant pay almost $3,500 to order menu items like black-eyed peas, sweet tea, potato salad, cornbread, chicken, and derby pie. Grits are mandatory. They accompany every dish. Even pie.

Mandatory mint juleps and wide-brimmed hats

It would seem mint juleps and hats are also mandatory. From a distance, the hats could be mistaken for Frisbees or flying saucers. Wide-brimmed hats are to Kentucky Derby what fascinators are to royal weddings. Only bigger.

The closest I ever got to Churchill Downs was the week I spent in Louisville one afternoon. It was the result of an ill-timed trip that routed me through Louisville on the day after the Derby. I got stuck in traffic so terrible I could only imagine a serious multi-car pile-up on I-64 that had shut down the interstate and flooded local hospitals with crash victims.

I was wrong. It was the run from the roses.

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