SB Nation's Spencer Hall at the 2010 Kentucky Derby
0 Total Updates since May 3, 2010
about 3 years ago Update 9 comments
It's best to think of the Kentucky Derby as one big video game, and yourself as the player involved.
ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: AVOIDED STAMPEDE, FIND EASY DANTE'S INFERNO METAPHOR
The infield tunnel at Churchill Downs goes under the track itself. On a rainy day like Saturday, pedestrians pour into it, fleeing the infield for the shelter of the grandstands and paddock, a slow march of cattle towards the slaughterhouse of the bars. There's the ten dollar mint juleps served in glasses heard dropping at intervals onto the pavement, the betting windows open like the money-sucking holes they are, the liquor, the couples arguing, the fat men with cigars waiting in line strangling racing forms in their hands, the smell of piss, wet bricks, horse shit, smoke, and bourbon in the pavement.
You have to go down into the tunnel to get between the two. In some metaphor, one side is hell, and the other is some level of purgatory, but the specifics get slippery when the mass drinking kicks in and you become more concerned about a potential Chinese bomb shelter situation in a mass of people growing impatient.
"Push. SOMEONE START PUSHING." I turn around. The man saying this is braying donkey-drunk, wearing a baseball cap turned backwards, and looking around to see if anyone's seconding him. No one does. The people around him cut their eyes at him warily. If they have guns, their hands might be on them. I'm not getting in their way. Stampedes are for cattle.
I've traveled to Kentucky with Mr. Chen, my rental Chinese high school gambling protege for the weekend. He looks concerned.
"There are many people here."
The person who lives in the most densely populated collection of urban centers in the world is concerned about the press of people in the tunnel. I get chipped in the Achilles' Tendon by something pushing from behind.
The stampede, I think. This is when I die. I'll die clutching my carnie barker's hat, crushed between the drunk women in sundresses in front of me and the beefy frat boys behind me. If this only involved the right women in sundresses this wouldn't be a totally unwelcome death, but I have no choice in the matter. I'll die crushed in the filthy throng fifty feet from safety. The people with money in the grandstands will watch as this trough compacts us into a horrible slice of compressed human canned ham. But I can see your underwear, ma'am. Please remember that, lady standing over the ramp like a foreman watching pigs go down the slaughter chute: I died seeing your panties, and so did every other swine in this trough, and that has to be some kind of revenge in the face of imminent death.
No stampede comes. An 80-year-old woman in a motorized scooter smiles up at me. I haven't dared death once today. The 80-year-old woman in a Tennessee Vols t-shirt who drove a motorized scooter into the infield at the Kentucky Derby, now...she's doubling down on death while the rest of us have barely put an across the board two dollar bet on danger. She smiles, I step left, and she barrels forward like a belligerent, blue-haired snail.
She slowly knocks her way uphill. We wait in the rain.
ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: MAKE PLANS FOR LUCRATIVE CHINESE HORSE RACE OF THE FUTURE
In the infield, there's no real racing to see. Wade through the orange-brown mud for ten minutes, step over total strangers' tarps, coolers, and occasionally their prone, drunken bodies, and you will get a solid five seconds of horses running by the rail. This is hard to explain to Mr. Chen, the Chinese exchange student we have brought to the Derby this year.
"Where are the horses?"
"On the track."
"Where is the track?"
"Why are we here (points to infield) and not there? (points to grandstands)"
"Because we have no money, Chen."
"Then why are we gambling?"
"To make money, Chen."
This makes sense to him. He needs to pay attention to these things if he is going to take the Derby back to China, our new business plan for financial success, quick dollars, and an easy path to glorious Oriental ruin. My attorney--not a figure of speech, but my actual attorney--nods as he drinks Firefly Vodka from the bottle in the parking lot pre-race.
"The jockeys will all smoke."
"The horses will smoke."
"Someone will enter on a motorcycle, like 'No, it's a horse. Special breed.'"
"JATO packs will be involved."
"If we're doing it right, yes. JATO packs all around."
Chen is here to learn. Before the day is over, I will have shown him all that is America: women crying out their mascara arguing with their boyfriends, million dollar horses being bet on by two dollar people, two dollar people pouring ten dollar bourbon cocktails into their bloodstream at alarming rates, women in Harvard t-shirts leaping belly-first into mud pits, and the joys of parimutuel gambling. He's 15, and overdue for a proper education.
The China Derby, though, is going to be huge. I am accepting investors immediately, and promise a return on investment sometime around 2018.
ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: BONUS AWARDED FOR NOT DRESSING LIKE A TODDLER
Mr. Chen already knows what you dress up in for the Derby, even if you are just circling the infield all day like a lonely lost electron orbiting a nucleus of mud, filth, alcohol, and discarded betting slips. This is a carnival: outfits are required by contract, something everyone save Midwesterners seemed to grasp. Instead, they seemed to think "Oh, it's a sporting event, so I better let everyone at a horse race know I'm a Cubs fan." Add in the requisite cargo shorts, white socks, and sneakers, and all you need is a beanie and sippy cup to make it look like giant mutant toddler day at Churchill Downs.
You are the reason the Chinese own the world now, because you refuse to do your homework like hardworking Chinese go-getters like Mr. Chen who ask: "What should i wear? Are their traditions? Would I be a heel if I showed up in gear entirely unrelated to the event?" Next year, please leave the Ohio State jerseys at home, and wear a damn tie and fancy pants. I promise it won't make you gay, and you won't look like an overgrown toddler anymore.
Additionally, the beautiful women in hats and dresses may pay attention to you.
ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: TAUGHT UNDERAGE CHINESE YOUTH HOW TO GAMBLE ON HORSES
This is all a disastrous idea from the start, of course: Being underage, Mr. Chen can't go to the window and bet. He can, however, suggest a bet, and then in an unrelated matter hand me two American dollars out of the charity of his heart. I can go make that bet on my own accord, and then out of the kindness of my heart share the full sum of my winnings with Mr. Chen. My grandfather would do this with me, so it's an act of deep affection, and filled with the memories of sayings only a horse trainer could share with his 8-year-old grandson.
"Always bet on the first grey filly across the line."
"A paint ain't never won nothin' but the glue prize."
"Go get Granddad a beer. Tell 'em I sent you. No, you won't need ID."
Mr. Chen asked important questions from the start, even at breakfast at a Clarksville, IN Waffle House that morning.
"Why does the dialysis clinic have a sign saying "No guns or dogs?," for instance.
"Because people in Indiana bring guns and dogs with them everywhere," I said.
My attorney added: "Or dogs with guns."
"Right. Indiana. It's full of adventure, Mr. Chen. Remember this."
The Waffle House waitress asks us where we're from. She finds out we're taking Mr. Chen to the Derby.
"So, you brought him here to teach him bad things?"
Looks fly around the table.
"Um...yes, ma'am. That's what we're doing here."
ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: INITIATE RUIN OF PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF CHINA
We could not have had a more auspicious beginning, either: the Oaks on Friday came with brilliant blue skies and clean racing on a smooth track. The Oaks is more of a locals' thing, meaning the debauchery is generally done between people who know each other, creating more of a Mutually Assured Destruction effect between the participants. Detente is the rule, and one can walk through the infield without seeing one bare ass or teetering drunkette in heels lurching dangerously close to a foot-deep mud sump in a $400 dress.
It made for a nice tutorial. I reviewed the basics with Mr. Chen as my attorney sipped E&J cognac from a hip flask. Win, place, show; odds; exactas, trifectas, and superfectas; and the most important lesson, that all of this was as random as death and not at all as certain or bankable.
He studies the race form.
"This exacta box. Can you win?"
"Well, I could. But I won't."
"Then why place the bet?"
Because of wiring, Mr. Chen; because something in the manic-depressive, ADD-prone brain craves the kind of hellspawned thrill of the random; because sometimes even when you lose the thrill of gambling something floods in and tells you that despite cold numbers and facts the next race, the very next race, will be the one you break for a ridiculous sum of money; because that is the inheritance, Mr. Chen, and it's what we have to work with here.
That is the long answer, of course.
"Because it's fun?"
He nods and understands. How did I drive this lesson about the irresponsibilities of gambling to Mr. Chen? By hitting a box exacta on the Oaks, turning $30 into $150, and jumping around like a little girl with excitement afterwards while putting two dollars across the board on a winning horse for him, too.
"Do you win every time?"
"Today? Yes, Mr. Chen. Today we win every time."
We are teaching him horrible things. It is my birthright, and to further international cooperation i bequeath part of it to him. This is how you win a budding cold war: infect them with bad habits, give them money, and watch them squander it on huge cars, ugly houses, and gambling sprees. They're human. It's only a matter of time before they start eating themselves to death and blowing the mortgage on a sure thing in the seventh.
ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: PUT TIMESTAMP ON DEATH OF DERBY CRUISING
Mr. Chen and my attorney stay in the hotel to watch a Donnie Yen movie. it's something about the Japanese being evil and the Chinese being unholy assbeaters who refuse to surrender to the Japanese. Lacks any basis in historical reality. Has lots of knee-breaking and face-punching. Historical reality is evidently way overrated.
I get in the car with my brother to see if anyone is still Derby Cruising. Wealthy and wannabe wealthy Louisville goes black tie on Friday night, but West Broadway polishes up the whip and drives slow...or at least they do when the police don't stack two cruisers on each corner. The cars glower in the dark with just their hazards on; policemen lean on the hoods, pushing lingering traffic forward. After a few blocks businesses tick by in various permutations of the same four establishments: car wash, nail salon, gas station/chicken joint.
"I think we need to eat at that chicken joint."
"The one next to the nail salon."
"You mean the one by the car wash?"
"No, the other one by the nail salon."
A few black guys gamely crank their stereo by a tattoo parlor. Ear-bleeding noise rattles the windows of the car. Effort is here, but the street's dead the night before the Derby. The open invitation ball on West Broadway has, without any official notice, been cancelled.
ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: AVOID THE EMBRACE OF MUD PEOPLE
"May I take your picture, gentlemen?"
"Hey, you look like you could use a hug."
"No, no, I'm good. Seriously, I'm good."
"No, man, you need to feel some Derby love--"
Reporter in plaid jacket dashes into crowd chased by two muddy men with beards and headbands.
ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: WITNESS CRYING GIRLS
Something about the act of gambling and drinking breaks some young female consorts. This happens in Las Vegas frequently, and also at the Derby, where unstable young women, overwhelmed by their boyfriend's gambling losses, the three tall mint juleps coursing through their bloodstream, simply collapse into piles of weeping big-hatted goo on the pavers in the grandstands while their girlfriends circle her like a troop of protective chimpanzettes.
They need them, too. For every man who jettisons his incoherent sobbing girlfriend, two jackals wait just outside the circle, waiting to offer their shoulders to cry on, the privacy of a quarter of a hotel room to share the weekend and possibly love itself, and then the courtesy of stealing her wallet and sticking her with the incidental charges when he and his bros check out early and leave her hung over and befuddled in their hotel room. Circle up, chimpanzettes. Circle tight if you want her to live.
ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: BROS IN BRO-COSTUMES UNLOCKING ENDLESS ACHIEVEMENTS
Bros across the board showed out on Sunday. A survey of their Derby bro-manticism follows.
Bro went the Charlie Brown silks route. Bro earns major in-game bonuses for this.
Patriotic bro went the patriotic bro route, but bro loses points for backwards baseball cap and no Derby flair.
Top hat bro is awarded points for top hat and for growing his own bridle and reins in the form of goatee.
Awkward jockey bro is awarded one point for every inch of height dressed in well coordinated jockey outfit. Your correspondent is 5'11". We are going to need a lot of points, and to make sure this man never, ever attempts to race a horse competitively. Unless his ride's a Belgian draft horse, that horse will be running on six legs.
Bro went multiple plaids. Bro did not rip the space-time continuum itself, which is an ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED for him, too. Additional bonus for turning the lady's head, which is the whole point.
Bro: Hey, you wanna take my picture?
Me: Yes. That would be good. May I?
Bro: Why are you even askin', man?
Bro: [getting aggro] WHY ARE YOU EVEN ASKING MAN JUST TAKE IT---
Reporter in plaid jacket dashes into crowd chased by man in jockey bodypaint.
Superbros get super points for mad bro coordination.
Gumby bro earns points for effort, but loses them for not anticipating sweaty misery of being Gumby bro for a day.
Older veteran bro is awarded points for disturbing horse head hat.
Even older bro went with the Bert Sugar "ancient gambling bro" outfit. "Ancient gambling bros" litter Churchill Downs. They lean on iron support beams holding wrinkled racing forms and wearing ill-fitting suits with coordinated hats and watch chains. "Ancient gambling bros" may be a cautionary tale for the young, or they may be a shining example of a life well-lived. It's so hard to tell, really.
Infield Cowboy bro loses points for...well, everything, really.
This bro presented without comment.
ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: HAT AND SUIT BRO WINS LIFE
The first time I went to Churchill Downs it was 1980, and my grandfather, a horse trainer, led me down into this pit like Virgil guiding Dante through the Inferno. I remember distinctly seeing a man who struck me at the time as being the coolest man I had ever seen. He was a leathery black dude, at least fifty years old, and was wearing a red leather suits: red pants, red jacket in the long Shaft cut, a black shirt open to at least his clavicle, a huge black belt, and matching red fedora. I would describe his shoes, but they were indescribable and majestic like the face of god wafting out of the open Ark of the Covenant. He smoked a cheap, sweet cigar I now recognize as most likely a Swisher Sweet.
Until Saturday, that bro occupied the throne of "coolest bro ever." I am afraid he has been replaced by this man.
ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: AVOID MUD PEOPLE ATTACK TWICE
"Wow. Where did you come from to get this dirty?"
"We're from Harvard."
"When you ruin this country with terrible ideas, afterwards, will you still come back to roll in the mud at the Kentucky Derby?"
"I think you need a hug."
Reporter in plaid jacket throws smoke bomb, dashes into crowd chased by two muddy women in sports bras and tank tops.
ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: TAUGHT ABSOLUTELY NOTHING
The infield was well past critical mass at this point. Mud. Half-collapsed tents. Garbage piling up in randomly scattered mounds. Squadrons of rats abducting the small, weak, and hopelessly drunk. A woman in full regalia, touring for a spin through the infield from the grandstands, slipped in the mud in front of me, her dress completely flying up, her hat spinning into the mud like a doomed frisbee. Her companions turned slowly to her, glass-eyed and indifferent from liquor and fatigue.
We ended up watching the eleventh race--the Derby--standing by the televisions at the betting windows behind the grandstands. I had Super Saver across the board because Calvin Borel kept running the rail all day, and even my bourbon-soaked brain recognized this was a far better bet than my usual "That name sounds nice" bet. I collected my ticket. We slid into the stream of exiting hats and suits streaming out of Churchill Downs.
"Was that fun?"
"Yes. Very fun."
"Did you learn anything?"
"What did you learn?"
Mr. Chen paused. This should have been easy. What wasn't there to learn, young man? You learned to gamble. You learned that when given money and horses, people can achieve the miracle of setting fire to money without using a single match. You saw America, greedy, liquor-sodden America on holiday throwing away half-eaten sheet cakes and whiskey bottles in the middle of the infield, rolling in the mud and leaving their girlfriends to weep on the bricks. You saw old men waiting out the reaper in their finery while holding the last remnants of their social security check. You saw our collective soul, Mr. Chen. Our naked, feverish soul rolling in the mud.
He looks up.
"Um..nothing. I learned nothing."