What Derby Day Means to Me

7066AD5C-EC31-4B64-973A-A0CF970732A8When I was 10, I moved to a Kentucky horse farm. I was a suburban kid who had lived in the same house in Nebraska for all my life. The only horses I had known up to that point were the lazy, slow, old, and seemingly drugged kind that people ride at campgrounds. But there I was, suddenly living on a real working farm, where the horses were not the campground kind.

They were thoroughbreds and it didn’t take long for me to learn the sheer power of these creatures. My 18-year old stepsister took me riding with her one afternoon. A bird spooked our horse, he jumped unexpectedly, and we fell off. I broke my right wrist. I never rode another horse on the farm again.

But I did live all my tween and teen years around them. I watched them prance in the pastures, I watched mothers give birth, I watched babies grow, I watched many of them get sold to new owners, and I watched them race at several different tracks. All these activities were underwhelming and often downright boring to me, the former suburban kid.

Then I went away to college, graduated, and started adulting, all next door in Indiana. As if overnight, I developed an appreciation for my background as the child and stepchild of horse farmers.

It was fun to tell people I was from Kentucky. They usually reacted with a snarky comment about kissing cousins or a joke that claimed Hoosiers to be superior. I would always defend my Bluegrass State by saying “We have just as many jokes about Indiana as you people have about Kentucky!” I’m lucky no one ever asked me to tell one of those jokes because I didn’t actually know any.

While still in college, I attended my first and only-so-far Kentucky Derby. Let me be clear that it was not the proper way to attend The Derby. I didn’t wear a huge hat or a fancy dress. I was part of the mosh pit called The Infield. I don’t recall seeing a single horse; I drank cheap beer, not classy mint juleps; and, for whatever strange reason someone sprayed a container of ranch dressing from their cooler into the air, and I was one of the victims struck by it. Did I mention I wasn’t there with any of my good friends? I had been invited by a boy one year ahead of me, so I was there with his friends. I was desperate for mine!

So we can chalk that Derby experience up to a good story, but not much fun. But I do have happier ones to share that happened years later…one is the story of My Big Win.

As a young adult, I started betting on The Derby. I would make my picks by the morning of, then get to a track or an OTB (off-track betting) to place my wagers. I have always preferred the trifecta, a bet where you must pick the top 3 horses that finish best. The type of trifecta I use allows my horses to come in any order, rather than picking the exact 1-2-3 placements. Each year, I study the horses during the week leading up to the race. I look at their win records, their earnings, and their speeds from similar runs. There’s a science to my picks; they’re never random. Except in 2004.

It was the 130th running of the Kentucky Derby, and I was 5 months pregnant with my oldest daughter. I had identified 2 horses I really liked, Smarty Jones and Lion Heart, but I wasn’t feeling drawn to a third. So I went with the pink jockey silks paired with a horse named Imperialism, in honor of my baby girl on the way. I remember so well watching that race by myself in the basement of my first old house in the hipster part of the city. I remember the finish and thinking maybe I had won. Once I confirmed it, I whooped and hollered and jumped up and down, even in my much larger than normal physical state. I remember calling both sets of my parents to share the big news: yes, I had indeed won $987.60 on my Kentucky Derby trifecta ticket.

I paid for a crib and bright duckling yellow paint for the nursery and other baby stuff we still needed. And you better believe, ever since, I never miss betting a trifecta on The Derby.

Even my dad who hates Vegas and all other forms of gambling enjoys “betting the ponies.” So it runs in my blood from both sides of my family. No wonder I have a knack for it.

After moving to the suburbs in 2008, I started throwing Derby parties, complete with a cash betting pool and handmade mint juleps in different flavors. Because, trust me, a plain one tastes gross. I’ve created cherry, peach, and raspberry. All have been popular with my partygoers and quite delicious. (Fun Fact: I’m known among my friends for my mixology skills.) One year I made bourbon margaritas on, and everyone was surprised when they really liked them. I also served plenty of Mexican food for that Cinco de Derby, in lieu of the usual Southern snacks. May 5th is our pug CiCi’s birthday, too, so we had “pupcakes” in her honor.

This year on the first Saturday in May I will be placing a bet, but I will not be throwing a party for multiple reasons. I’m in the middle of a big move, plus I won’t be home. I am attending a wedding…

My dear friend “Rizzo” came to my desk last fall to share her important news with me. “We picked the date for our wedding and it’s May 4th, and, yes, that’s Derby Day,” she stated to me matter-of-factly. It was as if she thought I might be inconvenienced, because she knew about my infatuation with The Derby.

Of course I responded with the true joy I felt for this announcement, “Well, that is such a cool day to have a wedding!”

Riz came to my company seven years ago in her early twenties. She started and quickly excelled in an entry-level position and soon interviewed for a sales job in the same department as me. So we became coworkers separated by just a few cubicle walls. Then we became fast friends, connecting on a deep level about so many things – relationships, career paths, family matters, and our childhoods.

She’s not only a friend; she has become like an aunt to The Precious Pair, exchanging notes and gifts with them over the years. We have visited her at home, too. There was once an epic scavenger hunt inside an antique mall that she created for them, and last fall we had a sleepover at her house that turned out to be one of those unforgettable game nights. – see previous blog “It Was My Family, in the Kitchen, with a Board Game…”

Riz and I have also shared more Milanesa chicken sandwiches than I can count at a place called Bakersfield, not too far from our office. It’s our little lunch tradition. Lunches with her are rare these days since we’ve both become busier in our roles at work, yet whenever we can squeeze one in, it’s always mutually rewarding.

I value my time with this bride. She’s wise beyond her years, which allows her to be one of the best listeners and advice givers I’ve ever known. We’ve been lucky to get to know her hubby-to-be, too. He is incredibly talented (he can create just about anything from a hunk of wood), and he’s calming, kind, and a ton of fun to be around. But he’s never once worked in a soup kitchen, so he might want to work on that! (An inside joke that’s fun to include here.)

For their Happy Hour Shower at work, there was only one gift worthy for me to give them: a set of commemorative 2019 Kentucky Derby mint julep glasses emblazoned with their upcoming wedding date of May 4th. I told them I will get more sets in the years ahead to honor the special timing of their wedding day.

There are certain days in all our lives that mean so much to us. Birthdays, anniversaries, and major holidays are the obvious ones. Other special days are more obscure and individualized. Think about it – what are the days that feel like holidays to you every year, even if they aren’t official? Derby Day is that to me. It represents so many things…My Old Kentucky Home, my friends and my parties, rich traditions, Lady Luck, and now it will also signify the union of two dear people I adore.

Sportscasters often refer to it as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.” With a dirt track of 1 1/4 miles, The Derby is a race that’s about speed first, then endurance.

I’m proud of and inspired by Miss Rizzo and Mr. Finley because they have the special endurance and dedication that’s needed for marriage, the same traits the Derby horses and their hard-working humans need to end up as winners.

You’re already winners to me, Finzos. And I look forward to watching you two succeed more and more together. Watch for invitations to my Derby Parties in the future. We will toast mint juleps in your honor for your anniversaries.

But first, I can’t wait for your spectacular wedding day!


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