Kentucky Fried Horse

James O'Brien

NASCAR may have its pit stops, lite beer, and Britney singing the national anthem. But baby, you've got the paddock, mint juleps, 150,000 history-drenched souls singing "My Old Kentucky Home," and the knowledge that, in order to get a true glimpse of America in all her funk and glory, you must get thy ass to the Kentucky Derby.

Now, I mean. Pack a couple of cigars, as much cash as you can get your hands on, and a disposable camera or four. Go to Shinder's tonight or tomorrow and buy enough copies of the Daily Racing Form for you and the three or four other suckers who've got nothing to lose but money and time. Head south. As you get out of town, follow the unspoken vow to talk about nothing but horses for the 16 hours it takes to get from the Twin Cities to Louisville.

Put in the mix CD you burned for the occasion, the one that starts with Nashville Pussy's "C'mon, C'mon," Buzz Barker's "Land of the Free," and Sonic Youth's "Bull in the Heather." If you've got an inboard DVD, stock up on a few: You'll want Let It Ride with Richard Dreyfuss and David Johansen, if only to memorize the proper inflection of, "I'm having a very good day." The Pope of Greenwich Village is solid; A Day at the Races is quaint; and Sea Biscuit is good night-driving fare. Caddyshack, natch. Porn? I suppose, but if the last scene in Let It Ride with Dreyfuss bookended by Terri Garr and Jennifer Tilly and his horse coming down the stretch doesn't turn you on, you're probably in the wrong van.

Stop for lunch at the OTB in Rockford. Bet a few races. Get back on the road so you can hit Muhammad Ali Boulevard by Thursday night. There are parties everywhere, but pace yourself. Hole up in your overpriced fleabag and study the form. Tune in to any of the local sports-talk stations, which crackle with yammering about the Derby, its trivia, fans, trainers, owners, and jockeys. Wake up early Friday morning, shave and shower for the last time before it's all finished, and head over to Churchill Downs for the Oak Stakes, the races and low-grade bacchanalia of which you should treat as an appetizer, nothing more.

Before checking out of the hotel Saturday morning, leave a pile of money for the maid, because it's good betting karma. Put on a T-shirt that will stand out against the sea of fuck-me-I'm-drunk-and-horny-show-us-your-tits fare ("Vote for Pedro," say, or "Listen to Bob Marley"). Grab some free breakfast in the lobby--in fact, grab everything free there is to grab, because every dollar is a potential bet, and you'll need all you can get later this afternoon.

When you arrive inside the gates, find the most beautiful Southern belle in the most garish Run for the Roses hat and have her take your picture with your arms slung around your buddies. Buy a program and tip sheet, make your way to the tunnel underneath the track that leads to the infield, and scream your lungs raw. Memorize the sound of your screams and laughter echoing off the concrete and harmonizing with the other whoopers, knowing that, for the rest of your life, that sound will stick in the part of your brain that stores music and orgasms. No matter where you are on the first Saturday in May--Canterbury Downs, a sports book, the living room of a nonbeliever--part of you will always be here, emerging from the long, dark tunnel of winter into spring.

Here you are. Derby day. Turn to your left and look up. There they are...the twin spires. They look small, because like Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, Woody Guthrie's guitar ("this machine kills fascists"), and every other human-made thing of import in this new land, they are bigger in your mind. So much so that they should be in grainy black and white, framing the thundering hooves of Secretariat, Cigar, Sunday Silence, Seabiscuit, Grindstone, Silver Charm, Strike the Gold, Sea Hero, Ferdinand, Seattle Slew, Dark Star, Northern Dancer, Citation, War Admiral, and every other Derby winner since the race began in 1875.

Find a good a spot on the infield. Set up a blanket or lawn chairs so you have a home base amid the chaos. Start betting, but pace yourself. A couple of hours before post time, get a beer, light a cigar, and walk around the infield, asking people about what horse they like and why. Survey the budding insanity, and the wreckage. Think about what George Clinton, who is scheduled to take the stage in Minneapolis around the time you hit Indianapolis Thursday night, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 1993:


It was one night with the Parliaments at a club in Boston called the Sugar Shack. It was 1967. I was tripping on acid when I said it, and I never would have remembered it, but this artsy-fartsy college friend who talked to me about Nietzsche and Ayn Rand and all that stuff used to sit in the crowd and write down what I said. At the end of the set, he handed me a scrap of paper that said, "Free your mind and your ass will follow." He said it meant something, so I kept it.


See what he means: A naked man sliding in the mud on his dick, who, upon rising, receives a spank from a tipsy old lady and some encouragement: "That was a good 'un." The Mayor of the Infield, parading around in tails and his three-foot-tall hat made of empties. A couple doing the nasty in a nasty-smelling port-a-potty with such vigor it shakes the entire row of blue cubicles.

Make your bet. An hour before post time, go to the paddock to bear witness to the rock-star horses you've been obsessing over for the last few months. Well before the 10-minutes-to-post-time trumpet rings out, and before "My Old Kentucky Home," abandon your belongings and press up as close to the infield fence as possible.

Steady yourself when the track announcer says, "The horses are approaching the starting gate." Take a deep breath when he says, "They're all in line," and another when he says, "And they're off!" Watch the monitor, but if you're close enough, if you're lucky, you'll be able to feel the hooves pound in your sternum as they take the turn toward immortality. It happens very fast, and you may not be able to see the winner cross the finish line. But if you concentrate, you will be able to hear the call from the speakers above: Down the stretch they come! Here comes Afleet Alex on the outside. Here comes Afleet Alex! Here comes...


Jim Walsh can be reached at [email protected] or 612.372.3775.

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