The Unsinkable: Kentucky Derby

Steve on phone at derby

So much to say!

At one point in the afternoon of May 4, I thought that perhaps I was channeling the unsinkable Molly Brown. There was a titanic amount of water pouring from the sky, there was a lot of strange and new excitement going on, and on this trip I brought along more fancy clothes than was truly sensible, given what Mother Nature was about to throw at us and knowing that my vacations are usually very active.

Drink menu from Harvest restaurant in Louisville

Starting the weekend off right.

The worrisome aspect of this feeling was fleeting: we were having a good time and it didn’t really look like anyone was about to drown in anything but liquor. The period part of it felt spot-on: most people dressed up for the occasion, and a fair number of the outfits looked inspired by history, a good TV show (Boardwalk Empire) or a movie (several of my favorites involve racing, gambling, and/or crime in the earlier end of the 20th century: The Cotton Club, The Untouchables, and The Sting).

Right when Molly visited my consciousness, I was swaddled in clear plastic ponchos (two: one for the hat, one for the dress, but none for the sandals), and snuggling up to an icy cold julep and my husband with equal fervor. Along with pretty much everyone else who didn’t have dry seating in Millionaires’ Row, we were appreciating the hell out of the rain-protected, humanity-heated, vendor-blessed main-level clubhouse area. There was a lot of excitement directed at the monitors above the betting windows, every 40 minutes or so, as there were 13 races that day, including the big Derby one. Those monitors were about the only things that drew peoples’ attention away from each other: this was perhaps the biggest cocktail party I have ever been to: 151,616 people showed up.

So, we went to the Kentucky Derby, last weekend. My husband and I joined our Louisville friends Duane and Nancy with other family and friends for a weekend of pure Louisville-in-early-May fun. The trip promised and delivered upon plenty of food, fancy, buzz and … horses! 

Going to the races.

Horses, ah yes, that’s right. They were there! I did enough research in the days prior to determine that a few of them had a story compelling enough for me to pay attention to the outcome. Surprisingly, I did this without looking at photos of the 21 horses available, though once I decided on Frac Daddy, I took a look at his handsome mottled grey coloring and wow, that’s when I decided to actually place a modest bet.

How did he do? Don’t ever let me choose a horse for you to bet on. Ah well, he still has my love. I hope he goes on to compete in the other triple crown races, and possibly others. Thankfully the rain-sloppy track didn’t get any horses or riders injured, as far as I could tell.

Big 4 Bridge

The new, feet-and-bikes only Big Four Bridge

And that was about as close as I got to the animals, figuratively and literally: I demurred when given the opportunity to step into the paddock to get close enough to one of the lovely beasts to even determine its color. I was a little afraid that I wouldn’t ask the right questions or look at the right parts! As a girl I lived for horse camp, but that was many years ago and now my horse exposure is sadly limited to my memories and tiny opportunities to ogle the random horse or two that we encounter when traveling. Yes, I count the “mules” in the Grand Canyon.

We had pretty good Derby seats, though had to stand on them –a risky proposal given the wet seats, my heeled sandals, the booze, and folding nature of the chairs– to see the horses run by, as everyone in front of us was doing same. Even through my bare feet on the seat, I could feel the hooves pounding and see the effort and spirit progressing on the track. “The Most Exciting Two Minutes In Sports” they say? I agree. It was just … tremendous to be there.

Haberdashers, milliners and cordwainers, oh my!

arah and steve on oaks night

I stored (scored!) Steve’s hat during dinner.

It seemed quite the miracle that I was warm enough, that day. There have been times when I have shunned the plastic poncho, due to its non-breathability and fragility: not on this day. A silk dress and light shawl would normally be no match for a windy, rainy, sub-60-degree day outside, but god bless the power of a $4 rain poncho! These were transparent, and so also allowed some display of the outfit I’d so carefully assembled. Most likely, had I brought along a snazzy raincoat, it wouldn’t have shed the rain nor kept in my own heat as well. Also, this … me-sized baggie even shed mustard. This was especially helpful, given that the bratwurst I ate may have been the key to my sobriety that day. Had I ruined my dress with a big yellow stain, I’d likely have wanted to be a little less aware of it.

As mentioned above, my suitcase was packed with dressy clothes: two more dresses than I really needed, and one pair fewer of active shoes than I’m used to taking on a trip. It was still a remarkably small suitcase for a woman taking a 5-day trip. Evidently running shoes take up more room than five dresses. Who knew? Suddenly a whole new world of travel options is more attractive to me.

Steve and I had spent perhaps 6 months planning for this event, clothes-wise. Not all of those months, of course, but I started considering dresses early last fall. At about that time, Steve determined that he’d need to find a summer-weight suit, or at least a jacket. As the cold Minnesota months dragged on, I was drawn toward florals almost as powerfully as Steve was trying to avoid clothes shopping.

Arah and Steve head to Derby

Derby finery!

Finally in early March, as I’d narrowed my dress choices and started to think about hats, Steve and I made a date to go visit Heimie’s Haberdashery. We’d heard about Heimie’s from friends, and walked past it once or twice. It’s a classy-looking mens dress clothing+accessories+barber shop in a very old building in downtown St. Paul, not ten minutes from our house. The array of things in the windows promised likely success on a summer-finery shopping trip for Steve, who needed a jacket and bow tie at a minimum, and a seersucker suit, hat, and fancy shoes too, for maximum impact.

We strolled in there on a big day for St. Paul: St. Patty’s day Saturday, when the streets were full of … oh, let’s say energy. Thankfully, most of the stumblers were not out looking to buy suits, and we managed to get the very helpful attention of more than one salesperson. An hour or so later, Steve was set: armed with seersucker suit, a summer jacket, a new pair of dark slacks & shirt, two bow ties, a red necktie with a horse pattern, a few pocket square options, and a hat. We did not manage to secure the desired two-tone shoes there, but we did get a recommendation that resulted in a fruitful Zappos order: some Allen-Edmonds saddle shoes, which were made right next door, in Wisconsin.

The remaining pieces–most notably my hat– came together right there in Louisville, with Nancy’s tremendous help. She’d secured a hat or two in prior years, so knew the ropes. Thank goodness I’m crafty and generally look good in hats: within 20 minutes of arriving at Dee’s, we’d found a mostly-ready hat, and a few feathers and flowers to personalize it. With some fiddling and hot glue the next day, I had a hat that I really loved wearing. It generated several compliments, including one from a young man from Syracuse University: “Go orange!” I realized just prior that I had created an outfit that was exactly in the colors of the rugby team for whom I used to play, the Twin Cities Amazons.

It was a rugby connection that brought me to Louisville: Duane and I know each other from Carleton College Rugby. Go Knights!

The trip wasn’t all about clothes, but we both had a good time dressing up in finery and hitting the town in great style. Bow ties make everything better, I am convinced. Hats help, too.

My third time in Louisville in 3 years. Fourth time, ever.

bourbon cocktail

My own version of a Gunslinger

So, evidently I like this town, and this state. The people are warm and friendly with few exceptions, the rolling green scenery is as endless as the flow of bourbon, and while we’re talking about food & drink, there are some tasty things to consume there, too. Here’s a brief rundown of delicious memories from this trip:

  • Over the four afternoon/evenings there, we did a fair amount of bar hopping, sampling mostly cocktails. Particularly memorable, perhaps due to its ephemeral nature and its angel of a hostess: The Angel’s Envy Pop-up Bar folks served up some beguilingly complex drinks as well as a sample of a rather rummy new rye.
  • At Proof on Main we got to mingle with other beautiful people: so thick were the crowds that in this venue I think I decided once and for all that I prefer old-fashioned glasses to martini glasses. Across the street at the St. Charles Exchange, I smartly (for me) opted for soda water but Duane discovered the beauty of a drink called a Gunslinger. To mix it, one will need a few special things: Booker’s bourbon as well as an Italian vermouth called Punt e Mes (check out this awesome 1951 Armando Testa poster for it!).
  • While it did rain on Derby day, the prior three days offered nothing but sunshine, and Steve and I got out for some exploration on foot. In fact, we both managed to get sunburned while checking out the new Big Four Bridge, which opened earlier this year. It’s not really a bridge yet, as the Indiana end is still in construction. The abrupt ending and turnaround reminded me of growing up near Seattle in the 1980s, when there where quite a few freeways that ended the same way. So, it was more of a sky bridge, which didn’t stop anyone from getting some moving done. There were plenty of other walkers, plus runners, tricyclists, big-wheelers and bicyclists out enjoying it, too.
  • We took a short break on the bridge to stop and enjoy a dessert that I’d bought at Ghyslain, where we’d had breakfast with Nancy a couple hours earlier. That wee brown pillbox of mousse and hazelnut dacquoise was heavenly.
  • While we had plenty of time to get out to visit a distillery or two, we decided against it. I’d seen several of them while in Kentucky last fall on the Bourbon Chase, and we really weren’t wanting in the bourbon-sampling department. After another impromptu tasting curated by our hosts, I confirmed that my favorite is still the Four Roses Single Barrel, though I found the Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel to be very memorable and worth another taste in the future.
  • Right upon arrival in Louisville, we were delivered head-first out of still-thawing Minnesota and into a loud spring, with bright flavors, flowers in bloom, and a lively dining scene. Dinner was at Harvest, where bacon featured heavily (and winningly) on the menu. My plate alone was a riot of flavor, offering these: herb ricotta gnocchi, cabbage, smoked onions, duxelle, grilled blue dog, ramp butter.
  • Dessert was a wander through fragrant, blooming apple trees, then past wide-eyed daffodils (they are my favorite spring flower) and an illuminated and busy ping-pong table, to a beverage made with house-made tonic at Garage Bar.
  • I have finally encountered a mint julep that I like! And I will hold that recipe close to my heart (but will practice it first). Thank you Duane! Thanks also is due to the Slugger Museum, for giving us, two years ago, what is evidently the world’s best muddler: the small souvenir bat that we received after the tour.

What a great time we had! I am so thankful for great friends, good health, and amazing things to see and do in this life. How soon will I make a fifth trip to Louisville? We shall see!

Want to see more of our Derby photos? Here they are. While there we also cut a few short videos, which are viewable here.

cute couple

The vacationers, rosy from Garage Bar G&T’s. Love you, hon!


7 thoughts on “The Unsinkable: Kentucky Derby

Comments are closed.