Late April and May recess found me and my friend hurrying out the back door and off of the stoop to the blue and white swings. Two sets of swings, two blue seats and two white seats suspended by thick chains, overlooked the baseball field at the bottom of the hill. It was the place where we rode horses all during the 30 minutes before the teacher rang the handbell. Tara chose Secretariat, and I jockeyed Seattle Slew. We reenacted the Kentucky Derby again and again.
I imagined shooting out of the gate, clad in some sort of purple silks, urging my horse all the way around the track, rounding the last bend and heading down the stretch. The wind caught my hair as I maneuvered my horse. We sang Dan Fogelberg’s “Run for the Roses” and imagined the blanket of red roses being award to one of us. Somehow the magic of the first Saturday in May had trickled down the interstate from Louisville to our little town. We were right in the middle of it all.
For some years, my dad let me choose a horse. We looked at the paper, noting the horses and their jockeys and their silk colors. I usually chose based on the name of the horse or whichever jockey wore purple. He placed the bet for me using his money. If my horse won, it became my money. I won once or twice, but mostly Dad just forfeited five or ten bucks.
Even in our little town, Derby Day made things electric. Folks rarely went to the actual race, but we lived the excitement and the glory of it during the days leading up to and on the day itself. We watched the news coverage. We reveled when we saw a favorite television or movie star show up in our Louisville on Millionaire’s Row. The famous fastest two minutes in sports happened in our Bluegrass State. Little Campbellsburg celebrated Kentucky pride.
Long before I knew about the spike in human trafficking during large sporting events, or the decadence of the infield, or the millions of dollars expended for one pony, the Kentucky Derby meant holiday and beauty and pageantry. It meant our state made the national news for something spectacular. The first Saturday in May showcased the strength and power of an animal I loved so much as a young girl, and I dreamed I could ride a horse like that someday.