The song demonstrates their bond, from the belly to the rooftop
of Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby day. Down on the infield,
where college boys drink their fill and try to get women to
lift their tops just high enough. Up in the skyboxes, where
corporate movers and civic recruiters show off Louisville at
its finest. Along the homestretch in the prized third-floor box
seats, where horsemen watch and dream of someday winning the
grandest horse race in America. Back in the jockeys' quarters,
where small men try to make it feel like just another day, but
a quickened pulse tells them otherwise. In the small towns
across central Kentucky horse country, where families throw
Derby parties and serve ham and biscuits and drink homemade
Each year on the first Saturday in May they are joined as one
when the first horse steps on the track for the post parade and
the University of Louisville marching band strikes the opening
strains of My Old Kentucky Home.
"It is our right of citizenship as Kentuckians, no matter where
we are at the time, to stand and become watery-eyed while they
sing the words," says David Hawpe, a columnist and editorial
director for the Louisville Courier-Journal.
Says Arthur Hancock III, owner of Stone Farm and Derby winners
Gato Del Sol (1982) and Sunday Silence ('89), as well as the son
of legendary breeder A.B. (Bull) Hancock Jr., "When the song is
played, it's not just moving, it's overwhelming."
The Kentucky Derby has been contested on the same site without
interruption for 129 years, longer than any other major sporting
event on U.S. soil. It stands at the center of the racing
industry, an event that can decide a horse's worth or a trainer's
reputation or a jockey's legacy. "No matter how good you are or
how many big races you've won, until you win the Derby, you're
just another guy trying to," says Steve Cauthen, who grew up in
Walton, Ky., and won the race aboard Affirmed in 1978.
The ritual and the power of the race generate emotions that reach
into the souls of Kentuckians. In the spring of 1970 Bruce
Lunsford, now a Louisville businessman and owner of Madcap
Escapade, a 3-year-old filly who could win this year's Kentucky
Oaks on the day before the Derby, was in basic training at Fort
Lee, Va. "On Derby day I'm sitting in a rec room watching the
race with four or five other trainees on this little bitty TV
set," says Lunsford. "Dust Commander wins, and I'm the only guy
in the room who understands the moment. Boy, not being at home,
it was the only time during basic that I was really homesick."
The Derby can be a young Kentucky boy's dream. Hancock was 10
years old in 1953 when his parents came home from Churchill
Downs, still talking excitedly about Dark Star's upset victory
over the great Native Dancer. Four years later he was at the
track in his parents' box when Gallant Man overtook Iron Liege in
mid-stretch and then faltered when his Hall of Fame rider, Bill
Shoemaker, famously misjudged the finish line and stood up in the
irons long before the wire.
On his family's farm in Walton, Cauthen learned to ride astride a
battered bale of hay. In 1969 he was nine years old and watched
from the backstretch at Churchill Downs when Majestic Prince
passed by and then held off Arts and Letters in the stretch. A
Cauthen family friend was the outrider for Majestic Prince that
afternoon, and after the race he gave little Stevie a rose from
the winning blanket. "About then," says Cauthen, "the dream
starts to build in your mind."
The Derby consumes the state and the city of Louisville. For the
last 16 years the Barnstable twins, Priscilla Barnstable and
Patricia Barnstable Brown (former Kentucky cheerleaders and
models who were featured in the Doublemint gum ads in the 1970s),
have hosted a party that attracts A-list celebrities on the eve
of the Derby to the Browns' 22-room stone mansion in the
Highlands section of Louisville. Each year several thousand
spectators stand outside the gates of the Brown estate, gawking
at celebrity arrivals. The party, which is expected to draw 1,200
guests this year, is a fund-raiser for diabetes research at the
University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville and has
raised more than $5 million since 1988. "This is one week when
Kentuckians are in the spotlight," says Patricia. "If we didn't
have the Derby, we'd all be just ... I don't know, renting movies
Instead visitors flood the city. Paul Coomes, a professor of
economics at Louisville, oversaw a study in 1994 and concluded
that some 75,000 of the 130,000 spectators at that year's Derby
were not residents of the Louisville metro area. "It's our Mardi
Gras," says Coomes. "Private jets are parked at the airport.
Hotel rooms double and triple their rates. Corporations put on
massive parties and use the luster of the Derby as a magnet to
For those in attendance on Derby day, the equine competition
wages a mighty struggle with the essence of just being there.
Cauthen was only 18 when he rode Affirmed to the first of his
three victories over Alydar in winning the 1978 Triple Crown. He
flew into Louisville from his training base in New York and slept
Thursday and Friday nights on the floor of his parents' hotel
room. On Friday he rode in the Oaks and on Saturday in the Derby.
"I came out onto the track, and it's such a spectacle, with the
women in their hats and the noise; it was everything you hear
about the Derby. It was a challenge just to keep my focus on the
job at hand."
In 2001 John Ward Jr. saddled Monarchos, a 10-1 shot that track
insiders liked. A fast pace cooked favorite Point Given, and
Monarchos rolled from behind to win the Derby in the
second-fastest winning time (1:59.97) in history. For Ward, the
grandson and son of horse trainers, who grew up in a cottage on
the backstretch at Keeneland, the experience was almost
inaccessible. "The horse is in the gate, and all of a sudden it's
like you're in a void," he says. "Things stand still around you.
You're amazed that you've got a horse in the race, and then as
the race unfolds, you won't admit to yourself that you've got a
Nineteen years earlier Hancock had stood in the winner's circle
with Gato Del Sol, having won a race that eluded his father. He
was handed the trophy and had to bite his cheek to keep from
fainting. Says Hancock, "I felt like I could step up and walk on
This is the 41st in SI's 50th anniversary series on the 50
states. Next week: Montana
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES OH, WHAT A FEELING For jockeys like Jose Santos, riding Funny Cide to victory here last year, winning the Kentucky Derby is the ultimate racing thrill.
COLOR PHOTO: MARK COWAN/ICON SMI DRINK OF CHOICE Mint juleps are a Derby staple.
COLOR PHOTO: JOE ROBBINS/ICON SMI HAT FANCY Wearing outlandish headgear is itself a competitive sport at Churchill Downs.
COLOR PHOTO: JAMES A. FINLEY/AP [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: TED S. WARREN/AP [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: ADAM COGLIANESE/NEW YORK RACING ASSOCIATION/AP
WHO WILL WEAR THE ROSES?
This year's Derby looms as one of the most wide-open in history.
Here are SI horse racing writer Tim Layden's picks with his odds.
TAPIT (9-2) He was only half fit when he won the Wood Memorial
on April 10 (left).
SMARTY JONES (5-1) It's hard to knock a horse who's never lost a
THE CLIFF'S EDGE (6-1) Trainer Nick Zito's third-stringer ran
huge in the Blue Grass.
OTHERS TO WATCH: Imperialism, who'll be moving up at the end;
Read the Footnotes, fresh off a seven-week break; Wimbledon, Bob
Baffert's Louisiana Derby winner.
For more about sports in Kentucky and the other 49 states, go to