It’s a sultry Kentucky night, one of those July evenings when everything is sticky with heat. Sundresses are plastered to slick thighs, and heels slip back and forth along the leather beds of sandals. Hands flap like desperate wings, trying to beat a little movement into the heavy air. And yet, despite the hundred degree heat index, 25,000 people have made their way along the humid highways to sit on metal seats under the bright lights, nestled in the shadow of Churchill Downs’ twin spires, watching the horses fly by. The racetrack is perhaps Louisville’s second-best-known symbol (it’s hard to top the Colonel’s white beard and greasy drumsticks). The Derby is not just a race here: it’s a culture, a festive storm that takes over the city, cancels school for a day, and brings in over $200 million in tourism revenue. And in the summer, when the sun sets on our old Kentucky home, we proud citizens of Derby City get dressed up to throw our money down on sleek chestnut fillies topped by tiny men in fluorescent jumpsuits. Clutching a winning ticket in one hand and a bourbon and coke in the other, Scout turns to me and sums up our summer evenings in one succinct statement: “In other cities, on a Friday night, people go to the clubs. We go to the track.”
It’s hard to explain the phenomenon that is Derby culture to an outsider (except perhaps a New Orleanian, whose fervor for Mardi Gras approaches ours: a former roomie of mine hails from Lafayette and refers to our festivities as “Louisville Mardi Gras”). Our city’s deep-seated love for horse racing extends far beyond two minutes in May, past the month-long stretch of the Triple Crown. Bumper stickers and beer coozies proclaim our state’s bounties to include “strong bourbon, fast horses, and beautiful women,” and growing up I had a slew of friends who spent not just Derby and Oaks but Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and even Thanksgiving down at the track. When they started running weekly races in the summer the year I was 19, it seemed like a no-brainer: such a perfect fit for this town and these folks that I was baffled it had taken them this long to come up with it. Our Friday nights were filled that June with sundresses and crumpled up wager slips, drinks smuggled in tiny bottles in our bras or under a metal rail by the more indulgent parents. They say Louisville is the biggest small town you’ll ever meet, and going to the track encapsulates that. I saw so many former peeps from high school or Hebrew school, old Quick Recall competitors or that chick from summer camp who played Bilbo in The Hobbit, it felt like a family reunion, complete with weird cousins, awkward conversations, and that one uncle who drinks a bit too much. Diet Coke in hand (generously spiked from a Ziploc bag of Malibu, still a tad sweaty from riding in under someone’s cleavage), with my best friends around me, watching the horses gallop past under the floodlights and cheering with an enthusiasm more suited to a $1,000 trifecta rather than my paltry $2 across the board, I knew I was home.
But summer ended, as all things must, and I made the trek back up to Rhode Island, a couple dollars richer from my bets (and three months spent serving Mediterranean food and scrubbing skewers). My first week in Italian 300, our professor told us to bring in a picture from our breaks and explain, in italiano, what we had done with our vacation (there’s nothing like a language class to make you feel like a 1st grader, rather than a college sophomore). For my show and tell, I chose a blurry shot of me, Scout, and three of our best friends, hair in braids and the final post in the background. I looked up the necessary vocabulary (ippodromo, corsa di cavalli) and wrote up an index card with bullet points, but language barriers aside, I had a hard time articulating just why this moment had been so special. There was the joy of being reunited with old friends, the girls who had seen me through my frizzier and braces-sporting years, and the thrill of this “grown up” activity, soooo much classier than the movies and fro-yo of our pre-college weekends. But there was something more to it than that. Before going to school in Rhode Island, I would adamantly deny that Louisville was in the South. I emphasized the “on the border of the Midwest” and the “practically in the North” part, and would roll my eyes when acknowledging its greater context in the state of Kentucky, land of fried chicken and kissin’ cousins. But it didn’t take long in the Northeast for me to realize that there was Dixie in my blood, and that I was damn proud of it too. Going to the track might have been a strange weekly activity for a bunch of soon-to-be college sophomores, but we couldn’t have been happier to be complicit in our town’s weirdness.
Not everyone has the same reaction to my beloved city on the Ohio. In a 1970 article for Scanlan’s Monthly, Hunter S. Thompson declared, “The Kentucky Derby is decadent and depraved.” As a Louisville native he felt qualified to vilify the city’s proudest and longest-standing tradition. Thompson was 33 and living in Colorado at the time, and he had spent nearly two decades away from his hometown, picking up, along with a taste for hallucinogens, a popular distaste for the “backwards South.” You can feel him sneer as he describes the “pink faces with a stylish Southern sag…burnt out early or maybe just not much to burn in the first place.” These were his classmates, his teachers, the waitress who poured his coffee, the bartender who served up bourbon on the rocks. And he threw them under the bridge for a motorcycle jacket and a spot on the Rolling Stone masthead.
It’s easy to laugh and belittle the women in their hats and the men in their seersucker suits, sipping on mint juleps in the May sunshine or the June twilight. The pageantry seems silly, the twang has been imitated in one too many Foghorn Leghorn cartoons, and those Appalachian kids with their skin turned blue from too much in-breeding have been plastered all over the national news as symbolic of the “backwards Kentucky lifestyle.” But the thing people don’t understand is that Southerners aren’t slow because we’re stupid, or lazy, or incompetent. We slow it down like molasses so that we can taste the lemonade and watch the jockeys’ silks glisten as they prance around the paddock. It’s not that we’re incapable of rushing around in a New-York-minute frenzy: we just don’t want to. We’re proud of our Southern hospitality, of our genteel charm, of our ability to stop and smell the magnolias.
And in Louisville, we take that Southern charm, throw it in with a thriving local arts scene, a decidedly liberal bent, and a hipsterly affection for great coffee and independent businesses, and blend it all up into a mix that’s all our own. Friday nights at a bar are all well and good, and I love a concert as much as the next gal, but come summer, each weekend has me dreaming of a humid breeze, bourbon on ice, and the sun setting on a dirt track. I may be an adopted Southerner, California-born and Kentucky-raised, and it may have taken me a while to claim that heritage as my own, but these are the things that I miss most in Brooklyn: Nobody calls me sweetheart, and you have to work to find decent mac n’ cheese.