For 23 years, my parents threw the finest Kentucky Derby party in New England. This was their way — as native Tennesseans — of bringing a considerable slice of the American South to Main Street (literally) in my tiny hometown of Northfield, Vermont. However chilly or damp the first Saturday in May might have been, our house throbbed with Yankees eager for another mint julep or a chance to stuff their wallets with an exacta. (My dad created a computer program to manage the almost-casual betting action. Stories became legends.) There were even a few ladies in big hats. Derby Day was an event at the Murtaugh place.
Then I became a father on May 6, 1999. Sofia arrived on a Thursday, two days before Charismatic won the 125th Run for the Roses. Thanks to a Leap Year in 2000, Sofia’s first birthday arrived on Derby Day, and we celebrated in Northfield, with both sides of our family and scores of guests convinced Fusaichi Pegasus would become the first favorite to win the Derby since Spectacular Bid 21 years earlier. (They were right.) The most important two minutes of the day were lost on our baby girl, as she napped throughout the race in her car seat.
My father died in 2005, and Derby Day in Vermont moved into the history books. But the event remains a pivotal date on the sports calendar, and particularly for my family. Sofia celebrated her seventh birthday on Derby Day in 2006. A friend from high school (and New England) joined us in Memphis and we made mint juleps and cheered Barbaro on to victory as though we were among the 157,000 in attendance at Churchill Downs.
Little girls love horses, so the older Sofia grew, the more heartfelt her interest in the Derby became. In 2008, she — along with millions — felt her heart break when Eight Belles, a beautiful filly, collapsed after finishing second to Big Brown in the Derby. With compound fractures in both front ankles, Eight Belles was euthanized on the Churchill Downs track. Try rationalizing that for your 9-year-old daughter. The Eight Belles Stakes (for filly sprinters) is now an annual feature of Derby Day.
Two years ago, when American Pharoah became the first thoroughbred since 1978 to win the Triple Crown (Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont), there was discussion of horse racing going mainstream, filling whatever gaps there might be in American spectator sports between football, baseball, basketball, golf, and such. If anything, it’s gone the other direction. Casual fans were drawn to the Triple Crown events largely out of curiosity over the drought, hoping to witness what might never be witnessed again. (Ask Chicago Cub fans about this phenomenon.) With the drought over, the next Triple Crown winner will be merely another Triple Crown winner, still in the shadow cast by American Pharoah and 37 years of anticipation.
But this is the Kentucky Derby. Among single-day sporting events in the United States, what else compares? The Super Bowl? There were 90 Derby days before the first “NFL-AFL World Championship” in 1967. The Daytona 500 or Indy 500? A horse on four legs for two minutes is more beautiful than any machine on four wheels for four hours. “Pageantry” is an overused word when it comes to sports (see: college football), because it should be a term exclusive to the Kentucky Derby.
Because of another Leap Year, Sofia has gone 11 years without a birthday on Saturday, but she turns 18 as the Kentucky Derby turns 143 this weekend. She was finishing first grade in May 2006 and is now bound for Wesleyan University. Her taste for mint was based entirely on a flavor of ice cream at age 7. (Okay, I hope she holds off a few more years on the bourbon-infused cocktails.) Sofia has even developed an appreciation for fashionable hats.
Enjoy the greatest two minutes in sports this Saturday. (My pick: McCraken.) I’ll be celebrating the greatest 18 years (so far) of my life.