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Thanksgiving in May

I mostly plan my travel around outdoors things that I want to do: mountains to climb, races to run, trails to hike, canyons and caves to squeeze through...which is what brought me to Kentucky. I was so fixated on the caving here that I didn't even think about all the horse-related events, including what should have been obvious - that my stay here would take place during the Kentucky Derby

Back in January when my cousin (and fellow nomad) was visiting me in Santa Fe, she asked about my travel plans and she's the one who pointed out I'd be less than 90 minutes from Churchill Downs on Derby day. And so, obviously, we had to go. She made plans to drive in from Salt Lake City and we got our other cousin to fly in from Lynchburg, Virginia, so we made a Swallow Gal weekend of it. 

Infield tickets were pretty cheap, surprisingly. Even on the secondary market they were basically the same price as direct sale, which we were about three months too late to purchase. But keep in mind that the infield is just that - a whole bunch of grassy areas (but surprisingly nice toilets). You can bring a blanket to sit on and lawn chairs too, which you will want to do if you plan to spend the whole day. The Derby isn't just one race - there are races all day long. Here's a video of us walking into the infield after we walked all the way around Churchill Downs from the side we parked on (we paid $30 for "close" parking, not realizing we were on the entirely wrong side), got through security, and then exited the tunnel to the infield. The second we got in, the excitement was overwhelming.

We went for five races, and there's a 40 minute wait between them (and an hour and a half break before the actual Derby race). That 40 minutes is just enough to stand in line for a drink or to place a bet before the next race. The lines are long and there aren't nearly enough food stands, drink booths, or betting windows for the amount of people they let into the infield. But really, what else are you going to do besides stand around and chat in between a few seconds of thundering hooves going by? We had mint juleps in hand, the weather was perfect (mid-70s and partly cloudy), and the company was great. That's my younger cousin in the photo below looking fabulously 1920s as she places her bets. She's the only one of us who won anything. Well, that's not true - I did win on one of my bets but I lost the ticket and couldn't claim it. 

Although we didn't get there at 8am to claim a spot right by the fence, we had no trouble seeing any of the races. The minute before a race starts, everyone stands up from their lawn chairs and blankets, and we just snaked our way through the crowd almost right to the front, even for the Derby. We only saw a few seconds of each race as the horses streamed past our little section, but it was still awesome. They'd run by and then we'd watch the rest on the big screen as the crowd around us screamed for their pick. It's incredible how something I have no stakes in (well besides my $20 - $50 bet per race) can get my heart racing.

The crush of people trying to cash out and leave after the Derby ended was insane. We found a side exit (not the main tunnel we went through) and were able to get out fairly quickly, but then we stopped in some of the shops and watched the next race (there were two more after the Derby, probably to encourage not exactly everyone to leave at the same moment) on the big screen. This photo was taken moments before the first rain drops plopped down. Then came torrential downpour, and we were soaked through by the time we got back to the car. What timing! 

And why the title of this post? Well, the day before Thanksgiving might be worst time to fly in most of the country, but the day after the Derby is absolutely the worst day to fly out of Louisville, Kentucky. I had to fly to Portland, Oregon the next day for a conference I was speaking at. The TSA Precheck line wrapped around outside the airport and snaked back in and around again. It was insane. The airport staff tried to keep people happy by passing out free water bottles and hosting live musicians playing both before (classical music) and after (bluegrass music) security, but when I was still sitting at my gate two hours after my scheduled departure time with no more connections available to Portland through Chicago by the time I might get there, not that it looked like I'd be leaving Louisville anytime that night anyway, I wasn't a very happy camper. 

So, was it all worth it? Would I go again? Yes and yes. This was expensive and chaotic, but really, really fun. If I went again, I'd at least get infield bleacher seats - a slight upgrade from the field - but more likely I'd go to Thurby on Thursday and Kentucky Oaks on Friday instead and get great seats and tickets that include all your food and drinks. And I've really loved my time in Lexington, so chances are that a return to Churchill Downs isn't just wishful thinking.