At the Kentucky Derby women wear ridiculously elaborate hats and heels they regret within the hour. The horses are sleek and strong and beautiful. And, bonus, there’s always bourbon.
When Seattle Slew won the Derby in 1977 (“Seattle Slew ’em in the Stretch”), I was 13. I inhaled Derby coverage. It was a rare celebration of my community. On TV, there was the whoosh-roar of hot air pumping into colorful balloons that I could later see as rainbow dots from my backyard.
On the radio, play by play of a steamboat race pitting the Belle of Louisville, with her red paddle wheel, against some clearly inferior boat from Indiana. In print, two daily newspapers reflecting my hometown alive in a way that came only each May.
Then, as now, national coverage of Kentucky centered on hillbillies and Colonel Sanders. But on Derby Day the press focused on the beauty of the Bluegrass region and the graciousness of its people.
And then, as now, as the camera swept over the track with the crowd singing “My Old Kentucky Home,” I choked up.
Grown me sees it was a mostly boozy, vice-ridden spectacle. It was a snapshot of the country’s still persistent class divide with the in-field crowd doing headlong beer slides as elites sip cocktails in the air-conditioned and pricey grandstands.
Still, that press, those captured positive moments, mattered to me as a kid. They gave me a sense of pride of place and they inspired me to a career of capturing moments of my own.