The first Saturday in May is usually associated with horse racing, mint juleps, fashion and the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home.” Since I am not originally from Kentucky, I do not have the memories of Derby hats and pies everywhere, but what I do recall is family coming together on this special day. The memory of names like Spend a Buck and Alysheba being shouted out by my dad as each rounded the home stretch, with Dad willing with all his might for each to go faster and faster will be something I never forget. Memories of my mom creating special handwritten betting tickets for my friends and me so that we would feel like part of the action, since we were too young to wager. I recall my dad reading the Daily Racing Form at breakfast, lunch and up until the race, trying to find and wager on the perfect combination of horses.
In my teen years, my family would pack up and attend Derby parties at nearby racetracks, and that, folks, is how I fell in love with the Kentucky Derby. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had Derby fever. Even hundreds of miles away from Louisville, I imagined we were walking into Churchill Downs minus Churchill’s famous Twin Spires. Everywhere you looked, people were wearing brightly colored outfits and beautiful hats, drinking a certain mint concoction. The atmosphere and food were spectacular and for a starving teenager, it was nirvana.
As I shifted into adulthood, I moved farther and farther away from Kentucky but never lost that fever I contracted so long ago. Even when my wife and I moved to Pittsburgh, we attended a Derby party hosted by the Meadowlands Racetrack. While the pageantry wasn’t there and no one sang “My Old Kentucky Home”—other than my wife and me—I was still excited to have a little piece of the Bluegrass State with me that day. That was the year that Barbaro finished first. I remember that well because my wife picks horses by name or color. She won that year because earlier that year her Aunt Barb was diagnosed with cancer, and since Barbaro had Barb in its name, that was her pick. Aunt Barb lived in Florida, but never forgot her Kentucky roots. One of her favorite songs was “My Old Kentucky Home,” which she would belt out for everyone’s enjoyment.
It is hard for people outside Kentucky to understand how important the first Saturday in May is unless you have had that experience. Even though my family grew up outside of Kentucky, we were close enough to appreciate the day. I was lucky enough to experience my first in-person Derby in 2018. We had just moved back to Lexington, and our dear friends graciously allowed us to tag along that day. If you don’t remember, that was the wettest Derby in history but it was also the start of Justify’s run for the Triple Crown. What are the chances of seeing a Triple Crown winner at my first Derby?
My dad was the biggest racing fan I knew. He died in 2015, but not before he witnessed American Pharaoh winning the Triple Crown. The first Saturday in May has a special meaning for everyone. It may be a chance to meet up with friends, put on fancy clothes and a hat, or drink mint juleps. For me, it is the memory of time spent with my dad and remembering the happiness he enjoyed every year on that first Saturday in May.
Jake Kratzenberg is chief operating officer
of The Lane Report, Inc. He can be reached
at [email protected]