LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The party started early at Churchill Downs for Joe Ochsner, who was sipping a morning beer on the sweaty track infield and picking his horses for the Kentucky Derby. Thrifty travel plans freed up more cash for drinking and betting on a steamy first Saturday in May.
Ochsner, who skipped the Derby during the height of the economic downturn, got together with four friends to kick in $175 apiece to cover the cost of using another pal’s RV. They parked near the track and spent the week in the area.
“It beats a hotel,” said the 43-year-old from St. Louis, who said he was already awash in cash from winnings at a nearby casino boat in Indiana. He planned to invest some of his casino windfall in his Derby favorite, Bodemeister, who finished second.
“This is my favorite thing to do,” he said.
America’s most famous horse race spurred a holiday mood among the crowd that gathered to bet, drink, eat and check out the finery. Mint juleps flowed and colorful hats were plentiful. Fashions ranged from cutoffs and bikini tops to pricey suits and low-cut sun dresses.
Debbie Rankin, a 54-year-old bookkeeper from Staunton, Ill., was buying two juleps at a time to cut down on trips to the vending stand. She and a friend expected to spend up to $1,500 combined for their trip to Kentucky.
“It’s our vacation,” she said. “This is what we like to do, so we do it. We don’t care.”
Early-morning rain left the grounds soggy, but they were slowly drying under overcast skies. Humidity kicked in by afternoon, and highs in the 80s were expected. By afternoon, tents had popped up throughout the sun-splashed infield.
Laura Snyder was making her maiden trip to the Derby – a last hurrah before getting married this month.
The 26-year-old from Cleveland set up an infield tent with her bridesmaids.
“We came here for a good time, to have a blast,” said Snyder, who wore a blue T-shirt with the word “bride” printed on it.
Her friends, some sporting straw cowboy hats, wore blue T-shirts with the word “bridesmaid” on them.
T.J. Mehan, of Columbus, Ohio, gathered under an infield tent with friends from Ohio, Indiana and Louisiana. Infield tickets, which went for $50 each on race day, made the event affordable, said the 36-year-old Mehan.
“Next to the Indianapolis 500, this is the best tailgate party ever conceived,” Mehan said.
Mehan and friends planned to bet on horses, but were learning the game of horse racing on the fly.
“We’re going to throw some horse names in a hat and pick,” Mehan said. “This is a whole new experience for me.”