On the first Saturday of May each year, crowds enter the gates under the iconic twin spires and fill the grandstand in their Sunday finest. The ladies wear hats that are more like works of art and the people will drink mint juleps while the wagering windows open. At Churchill Downs the excitement will build as race after race displays the remarkable speed and grace of the horses crossing the finish line. But most have come and are waiting on the 10th race of the day, the Superbowl of horse racing, to see potential history in the making, the run for the roses – the Kentucky Derby.
For the horse racing fan this is a race like no other. In its 134 years it has not only become the longest running racing event, but it has also become a tradition rooted deep in American history. The inspiring tales of all who work so hard to get here, the horses they live for, and the everlasting glory that comes from winning all combines to create one of the most exciting, emotional, and grand displays of horsemanship, sport, tradition, and patriotism.
Since I was a little girl it has always been my dream to be in the grandstand on this day to experience all the sights and sounds of the Kentucky Derby. And while that dream has not yet been fulfilled, I came very close yesterday.
Here in Louisville, my only mandatory request was that I have a chance to visit the iconic racetrack and for a moment be able to close my eyes and envision all the activity of the biggest race day circling around me. To be able to picture in my mind the greats like Secretariat, Citation, Affirmed, Giacomo, and Barbaro crossing the finish line and winning the races that over time would become some of the greatest sporting moments ever.
As I drove over a hill on my way to the track I could begin to see the famous and historic twin spires that sit atop the oldest part of the grandstand. They glistened in the warm, early morning glow of the sun and my heart melted. It became a more emotional experience then I was prepared for. Tears welled up in my eyes.
Growing up, and even now, I have spent every Derby Day since I can remember in front of the television sizing up the horses, watching all the excitement from home. For most of those years a permanent fixture of that day has been sharing my opinions and excitement with my parents. It became another connection between us, my love of horses became their passion as well – so much so, that I know through the years they often would have given anything to be able to have afforded for me the chance to have my own horse growing up. I know they have also always wanted me to have the opportunity to go to the Derby in person.
So as I pulled in the quiet, nearly empty parking lot, my thoughts shifted to my parents and how grateful I am to have had them in my life and how incredibly supportive they have been of all my dreams both big and small.
I composed myself in the car before going into the park. I did not expect the overwhelming feelings I experienced. But throughout the day as I walked through the tunnel path that the horses follow from the paddock to the track, and visited the grandstand, the jockey’s quarters, millionaire row, and the barns and stables on the backside, I could feel my parents, especially my father, walking with me. I know my dad was soaking up the information, the history, the sights, and my enjoyment every step of the way.
The twin spires experience is one that I will not soon forget. It was not a race day, but the empty grandstand and quiet track seemed to fit the moment and allowed me a time to reflect on the history, the magnificence of the venue, and how inspired I felt. Not only did it partially fulfill a little girl’s dream, but it reminded me just how much my parents love and support me. And for a little while, I was able to share some time, if only in spirit, with my father who I miss very much. I know he would have been so excited to hear all about my twin spires experience.