Gas prices can't keep fans away

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. --- High gas prices didn't stop Tom Pearson from making the long trek from Wisconsin to watch the Kentucky Derby from his usual spot in the crowded Churchill Downs infield -- or from wagering a bundle on the horses.

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Spectators walk through the paddock area before the 137th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday. Despite rising fuel costs, a record crowd of 164,858 showed up for the famed race.   Associated Press
Associated Press
Spectators walk through the paddock area before the 137th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday. Despite rising fuel costs, a record crowd of 164,858 showed up for the famed race.

Pearson, who staked out a place with a backside view, spent about $120 to drive with his wife from Madison, but he wasn't pinching on food, drinks or bets at his 31st consecutive Derby.

"We're not changing anything because of the economy," said Pearson, who expected to bet his usual $400 or so during a long day of races. "It's a one-shot-a-year deal."

Fans packed ponchos with an eye toward cloudy skies as tens of thousands of fans filed into the famed track on Saturday. The cool morning temperatures and threat of rain didn't dampen the fashion scene. Women were decked out in stylish dresses and brightly plumed hats while many men sported suits. In the infield, shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops were in style.

While gas prices hovered around $4 a gallon across the country, prices at the track Saturday held steady, with infield general admission tickets at $40 and mint juleps going for $10.

Seven fans from Minnesota rented a van for the cross-country pilgrimage to Churchill Downs. They spent about $250 on gas to reach Louisville, but Jim Sand of Cold Spring, Minn., quipped that the amount might pale compared to what they spend on beer and food.

"It's an event," he said, shrugging off the price of gas. "You save up and you scrimp on nonessential other things to have a little party."

Annette Graham, who made the 8-hour trip from Michigan, said she was staying at a less expensive hotel and her group skipped renting a motor home to save money on gas.

Lewis Grant, a Kentucky Derby regular since 1989, planned to spend more in bets this year because of his own improved fortunes. The Alabama autoworker, attending the race with his wife, said he's working again after being unemployment the past two years.

"Always bet the jockey because the horses don't really matter," Grant advised. "If you have a bad jockey, the horse doesn't make a difference."

Vendors selling everything from beer to fine watches were doing a brisk business under the grandstand, and lines were long at the track's main souvenir stand.

While women walked around in eye-catching designer hats sporting feathers or flowers, other people showed off their own ingenuity as hat makers.


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