I watched the Kentucky Derby with notalgia and sadness this year. Yes, part of it had to do with that poor horse, Eight Belles, breaking her legs and being euthanized. That was horrible. But, I have always enjoyed the Derby and, having lived in Kentucky for a few years and just coming back from a visit there, I was struck by how very "Hollywood" the region and the Derby itself have become.
When my husband attended graduate school at UK, we lived on the Kentucky River, just outside of Lexington. The city was more of a town at that time, centered around horse farms, horse racing and the universities: UK & Transylvania. It was a sleepy, beautiful, pastoral place full of old money and pretensions focused on "Who are your people?"
Keeneland, the Lexington track, is where all the great horses run weeks before the Derby. My husband and I used to pay general admission, a couple of dollars, to stand behind the owner's boxes and watch them bet on the bloodlines they knew so well. If you bet along with the horse breeders, you were very likely to win money. Keeneland was famous for its beauty and traditions, the most famous being there was no PA system to announce the races. You had to pay attention and follow along without benefit of loudspeaker commentary.
The Derby was a celebrated event but mostly in the South. Derby Day parties were common not only in Kentucky but in Viriginia, where we later lived, and other southern states. However, I do not remember people in other parts of the country holding these fetes. In fact, the Derby was widely followed on radio or tv but the parties seemed to follow in the wake of the Hollywood celebritization of the race. This year, tv coverage @ 1pm and carried on through 6pm when the Run for the Roses took place. They had a red carpet; they had celebrities; they covered everything from historical aspects to who's dating whom. It seemed more about glam and glitz than horses.
My husband and I saw Pete Rose arrive at Keeneland with several sheiks in a Rolls Royce one season. It was exciting but not as exciting as the horses in the paddock. Anyway, in those days, it was more about Pete and the Big Red Machine than anything else.
A local Lexington legend was one of the Hunt brothers (of Hunt's Ketchup). He was a well known horse breeder. He traveled about in an old pickup wearing old clothes; some said to downplay his wealth and status. Contrast that with the silly celebrities and entertainment show hosts asking the big questions: "Who are you wearing?"
I liked the old traditions better.