Saturday, May 04, 2002

More than just a race

Spectacle, tradition draw fans year after year

The Cincinnati Enquirer

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        LOUISVILLE — It's like Christmas, the World Series, the Big Top and a wedding all at once — but with the 70,000 bridesmaids wearing clashing hats.

        The spectacle of the Kentucky Derby is unique, attracting the biggest crowd of any horse race in the world. More than 150,000 are expected at Churchill Downs today. That's more than any sporting event in the world, other than three auto racing events.

        But fans come to this Ohio River city the first Saturday in May for more than the horses.

        The Derby is an icon of glamour and excess world-wide, whether your seats are on the rail of Millionaire's Row or in the mud, blood and beer in the infield.

        As those caught up in the race's aura fans deluged Churchill Downs the day before the 128th Derby, they shared some of the reasons that bring them out for the Run for the Roses. But not one mentioned horses.

        Thomas Reed, 42, of West Chester, traveled more than 100 miles to be a part of Louisville's Derby festivities. Though he said he planned on placing a few bets, he comes mostly to people-watch.

        “The atmosphere is great. It's festive, almost like Christmas. Everybody's looking good,” said Reed. The clerk for General Motors was decked out in a green plaid suit and a straw hat with a single feather for Friday's Kentucky Oaks race.

        “The race is always good, but I like the fashion,” he said.

        Sharon Dacruz, 39, traveled from Tewksbury, N.J., with two large hats — one to wear to the Oaks, another for the Derby. Today will be her first Derby, and it's something she plans to be part of for years.

        “There's a whole Southern festive thing going on,” she said as she shopped for Derby T-shirts and other souvenirs. “I always wanted to go to the Kentucky Derby. I love the aura of the whole thing. It's a lot of fun.”

        But Teri Shirk, 36, of West Chester came prepared. She and a friend were decked out in black and white outfits and wore matching black wide-brimmed hats as they waited for the official results of the fourth race.

        “It's like the World Series, but you can win money. What more can you ask for?” she said. For her, the answer was lots of money. She pocketed $683, after hitting a trifecta.

        Shirk, a regional manager for a Tristate biotech company, took a vacation day Friday to be in Louisville on Friday. Many others were doing the same.

        Vicki Smiley, 49, of Maineville took off from her job as a sales manager to attend the Oaks. She plans to party in the infield today in the same spot she has occupied for the past 18 years.

        “It's all about tradition,” she said.

        One of the best moments, she said: The singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” just before the horses run.

        “It will bring tears to your eyes ... it's so bad,” she joked, adding that she never wins any money, so she considers Churchill Downs her “favorite charity.”

        Though it doesn't bring her any luck, she wears the same shirt each year — a white T-shirt decorated in beaded horses and jockeys. Her friend, Tom McFarlane, wore a red, white and blue cap covered in Derby pins from the past 18 years, all placed in chronological order.

        George Raffaeli, 47, of West Palm Beach, Fla., said he was happy to be part of the Kentucky Derby — even if it's only for ""the thrill of losing.”

        Just being in the atmosphere of the Derby is enough for the business owner. “I love horses, I love the crowd ... I come every year.”


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