Saturday, May 7, 2011

Visiting Churchill Downs

There he was, by God—a puffy, drink-ravaged, diseased-ridden caricature…like an awful cartoon version of an old snapshot in some once-proud mother’s family photo album. It was the face we’d been looking for—and it was, of course, my own. Horrible, horrible...
-Hunter S. Thompson
“The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved”

A few years back, I happened to be in Louisville, attending an academic conference with a good friend and native Kentuckian. After reading our papers, I insisted, being the inveterate gambler that I am, that we visit the sacred dirt of Churchill Downs. In the spirit of things, we had a couple slugs of Basil Hayden before departing…only good bourbon for this adventure. Why not, after all? When in Kentucky…

It was the off-season and there were no races. There were, however, still plenty of gamblers milling about and betting on races around the country via simulcast. Immediately, in the spirit of things, we ordered up a couple of mint juleps. They arrived in commemorative Derby glasses. Delicious!

Outside, there wasn’t a soul around. We were able to stroll down to the Winner’s Circle and run our fingers through the earth that had been trod by such legends as War Admiral and Secretariat. I vaguely considered running the final 20 yards to share the energy of the victorious beasts that trod before me, but under the elegant shadow of history, I filed that in the “maybe later” category.

We headed back inside and indulged in a few of the generously tall $2 beers. When I found the $2 pulled pork slider tray, I thought I’d walked into heaven. After studying a racing form, we picked a winner our first try and won another of our bets to cover our alcohol and cab fare.

Feeling great, we left the ponies to the serious gamblers and headed back to the hotel. The heavy consumption of bourbon somehow managed to become a theme of the evening and the strict attention to memory became rather Swiss cheesy. So here is all that I can recall:

There was a lesson in bourbon by a bartender who could have had a Master’s Degree in the subject…did we actually walk under some giant, neon guitar, or did I just imagine that?...some random girl, neither of us had set eyes on before, felt the need to come and tell me that my buddy was “an asshole”…just a couple of fingers and a few cubes for me, thanks…convinced a teacher from Mississippi State was trying to philosophically trap me, every time he started to speak, I cut him off with a smile and “oh no, not this time Mississippi State”…goddamn elevator keeps trying to tell me what to do…my comrade in booze ended up meeting the woman of his dreams, an ex-ballerina, and by the fates, she was living in the same city as us, over 500 miles away…hello, cowgirl in the sand. hello, ruby in the dust.

The friendly custodian of libations at the hotel bar gave us free samples of their finest bourbon: some beautiful brown elixir from the Van Winkle line. Only in Kentucky would a hotel bar even have such a valuable and esoteric product. I was at Borgata, the nicest casino in Atlantic City, and the best bourbon they had at the bar was Knob Creek. Not bad, but with the rivers of money flowing through that place, the manager should have been hoisted up by his genitals next to all that ultra-swanky Chihuly glass sculpture. God bless the magical Bluegrass State!

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