Not Trying Too Hard

Kentucky-born author Bobbie Ann Mason once wrote “Deep down Kentuckians are always afraid that people are going to be surprised to see them with shoes on.”

Perhaps that explains the preoccupation with women’s fashion and those ridiculous hats at the Kentucky Derby. No doubt most everyone at Churchill gets dressed up and tries to look nice for the big race, but it seems a bit much, too forced, and lot like phony posing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for dressing up and looking nice, especially at the race track. But the Derby is less about being fashionable at the track than participating in a tiresome masquerade.


It’s either a tacky knock-off of English high-society at Royal Ascot or a misguided homage to a romanticized notion of antebellum southern culture. Churchill Downs isn’t five miles from Windsor Castle and Louisville sure ain’t the Old South; it’s a blighted, post-industrial port town; kinda like Baltimore. No disrespect intended; I love Louisville and I love Baltimore. I like Jack Fry’s and Frankfort Avenue as much as the Ottobar and Woodberry Kitchen. A key difference is that Baltimore’s premier racing event doesn’t try to be something it’s not.

Preakness Day at Pimlico is essentially a drunken free-for-all surrounded by a series of horse races; an excuse for east coast college-aged kids to get wasted and do as they please. Well known incidents have curtailed the reckless abandon in recent years. There was the time a fella got so drunk he ran onto the track during a race, apparently tried to punch the horses, and was nearly trampled. Then there’s the infamous “running of the urinals” when a young man was hit upside the head by a full can of beer and knocked on his ass. I don’t know if he was okay after getting hit, but he sure as hell wasn’t all that okay before getting hit.

At Pimlico, there’s no fashion pretense and damn few “Derby hats.” The minimum attire required to fit in at Pimlico is also the minimum attire needed to buy a beer at 7-11; shirt and shoes (and those can always be removed later). At last year’s post Preakness party a fight nearly break out when the caterer ran out of crab cakes. I also witnessed a fistfight in the concourse when one luckless bettor accidentally bumped into another.

Friday’s Kentucky Oaks day crowd is huge as Churchill Downs is packed; whereas the Black-Eyed Susan Day crowd is comparatively thin and revered by locals as the preferred time to visit Pimlico – before the shit hits the fan on Saturday when thousands of drunks pile in. The Derby is a spectacle, but the Preakness is real – an honest reflection of its host city. Pimlico, and the surrounding neighborhood, is unapologetically dirty, dingy, dangerous, and its best days are in the past. Yes, that is Baltimore.

Enjoy the races, I think Orb will probably win, but would like to see Departing give him a run for his money. Last year’s stretch duel between I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister was thrilling; hopefully we’ll see another great race this year. Good luck!

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