Few people realize that the Kentucky Derby is not the final race of the day at Churchill Downs on the First Saturday in May. It’s a common misconception, and after the greatest two minutes in sports, it was hard to tell by the mass exodus of the 164,906 patrons who visited the Louisville, Ky., track on May 3.
I was fortunate enough to attend the races with Tucker Publishing Group Creative Director Laura Mathis and her husband Mark Mathis, who is a sports reporter at the Owensboro Messenger-Enquirer. While he was pressed for a deadline after California Chrome, the gutsy chestnut colt crossed the finish line 1-¾ lengths in front of his 3-year-old counterparts, Laura and I were left to enjoy what remained of race day.
We explored the track’s grandstand and ventured to places we hadn’t seen during the day, because of the throngs of people. It’s funny how before the Derby, access was everything to the employees of Churchill Downs. Since arriving at the track around 11:30 a.m., questions rang through the Twin Spires, such as: “Do you have a wristband? Is it pink or white? Do you have the letter M on your pass? If you don’t have the letter O, I’m sorry, but you can’t walk through this section.”
Because of our press passes, we were able to provide the right answers to many of these queries. But as soon as the Derby was completed, no one seemed to care where we roamed. The workers were exhausted and busy cleaning up the aftermath of what a crowd of 400 people shy of the track attendance record left in its wake.
As Laura and I explored the grandstand, we noticed the trash — and the treasures left behind. As an avid horseracing fan and Kentucky Derby mint julep glass collector (I wrote about my collection in “Down the Stretch” in the March/April issue of Evansville Living), it was a treasure trove of leftover mint julep and the Kentucky Oaks Lily glasses. Spectators would leave these drinks half full sitting on the railings or underneath their seats. All the glasses needed were a couple of good scrubs and they would be as good as new.
But at the same time, for every one perfect Kentucky Derby 140 glass, there were four more broken glasses lying in shards. Let me reiterate that these mint juleps are sold for $11 — they aren’t cheap! Laura and I weren’t the only ones scavenging for glasses; there were about 20 other people who had the same idea. Some people had trash bags collecting the recyclables for cash, while others collected the abandoned betting stubs in hopes winning tickets were accidentally discarded.
By the time the hundreds of volunteers would descend on Churchill Downs to collect the 40 tons of trash on Sunday, most of the goodies would already be picked over. Those volunteers are responsible for returning the blanket of white back to the luscious green grass of the infield and the grandstand back to the sacred ground that it is. Live racing at Churchill Downs is cancelled on the Sundays after Derby, the only Sunday without any during the meet, to allow time for cleanup.
Out of this blanket of “trash” during only a few minutes of scouring, I pulled out three mint julep glasses, a Kentucky Oaks Lily glass, two Derby collector drink cups, and a few untouched official programs for keepsakes.
It’s a lesson that someone’s trash is another person’s treasure — especially at the Kentucky Derby.