COLUMN: Mr. Roberts goes to the Derby

(Lincoln Parish Journal Co-Publisher Kyle Roberts attended the 149th Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Ky., on Saturday, May 6. This is a two-part column series.)

By Kyle Roberts

Boxes. Trifectas. Scratches.

Win (that one’s easy). Place? (Uh, sure, but didn’t the first horse place, too?). Show…. (yeah, I give up…)

For the uneducated in the realm of horse racing (like yours truly), the terminology above sounds Greek at best.

For the well-versed in the sport, the words roll off the tongue in the small amount of time available to the wager counter at the racetrack.

And for me? Well, it all began with a text in January from a dear friend, who wanted to take a group of us (along with his two sons) to watch the “Run for the Roses”. Honored to be included, I excitedly counted down the weekends until we’d take an 11-hour drive in a Mini-Cooper Countryman through Arkansas, Tennessee, and finally, Kentucky.

A sucker for nearly everything sports, I love watching any of the “big events” live, such as The Masters, the Super Bowl, March Madness, etc. Even though I know as little as a canter to a furlong in horses, I know the gravity of The Kentucky Derby. Awash with anticipation, the day had finally come.

Man, oh man, did the experience match the expectations.

Arriving at Churchill Downs around 9:30 a.m., we found our box seats, given to us by a very generous friend who will not be named (your “Thank you” card is in the mail). The first race had not quite begun yet (there’s more than one race at the Kentucky Derby?), so the timing could not have been more perfect.

The arena seats around 150,000 in total, and in the last couple of years due to COVID, less than two-thirds had attended in person. Thankfully, this year, crowds had returned, and we were among a sea of people ready to watch an entire day of races.

Of course, this year was not without some controversy: a few horses, very sadly, did not make it to race day, while a couple died after racing. And multiple horses scratched (meaning they pulled out of the race prior to running for various reasons) including the heavy Derby favorite, a horse named Forte.

Yet the day galloped onward. Race after race, with complimentary food and drink, and the highest fashion seen since the mid 1950’s; I opted for a light pink sports coat, pinstripe pants and a flamingo bow tie with a bowler hat. No Derby is complete without an outfit you can’t wear on a daily basis.

Mustering some courage as the morning turned to afternoon, I went to the ticket counter and placed a whopping $2 wager on Angel of Empire, the new favorite now that Forte had scratched.

And finally the moment came: the twelfth race of the day, the show we all came to see: The 149th running of Derby. Right before, and as if on cue, the entire crowd sang “My Old Kentucky Home” with a chorus leading us on the big video board.

By this point, the 150,000 capacity crowd had begun to buzz. The horses were moved to their posts and into the gate. The gun sounded, and they were off in a dazzling blur.

And then: the roar.

Now, I’ve been to a Sugar Bowl, to multiple conference championship games; I’ve even seen the women’s national team in the Thomas Assembly Center.

I’ve heard nothing like the roar of the Kentucky Derby.

Picture “the wave” in a stadium full of fans. You look as it comes around, and while you remind yourself you’re too cool to participate, you can’t help but be impressed by the churning motion of hands going in the air and coming back down. The best way to describe the Derby roar is an aural version of the wave — and once it comes close to you, the horses are not far behind.

Rounding the final stretch, 18 of the world’s most majestic specimens of equine superiority blurred past my line of sight. While I’ve watched many a  Kentucky Derby on television, a live broadcast does this part no justice: these were the fastest animals I had ever personally laid eyes upon.

Just like that — the two-minute race was over just as quickly as it had started.

And in the end, it was Mage who earned the 554 roses given to the winner in the 149th. All was not lost for me, as my $2 bet on Angel of Empire paid off a paltry $3.35 as the show horse (I finally get it). My mortgage will thankfully get paid this month.

An entire weekend for 120 seconds.

I wouldn’t trade those seconds (or the weekend) for anything.

Kyle returns with a second Derby column next week: Great memories, greater friendships