Share this article

print logo

The Kentucky Derby as a ‘Rite of Passage’

Native Dancer, the thoroughbred that won race after race in the 1950s, was unlike the stocky draft horses Carl Myers knew as a boy growing up in Amish country in Lancaster County, Pa. The colt was lean and elegant and, with its gray coat, stood out among the other thoroughbreds on his family’s black-and-white television set.

“These thoroughbreds, they’re so beautiful and yet so fragile,” Myers said. “That’s what hooked me.”

Never did Myers imagine that he would one day hold a stake in a thoroughbred that would compete in the Kentucky Derby and go on to win the Belmont Stakes, as his horse, Palace Malice, did last year.

With the 140th Kentucky Derby on May 3, Myers talked recently about attending the race at Churchill Downs, discovering Kentucky’s horse country, and visiting racetracks around the country that retain some of the charm of eras past. The following are edited excerpts .

Q: Any tips for viewing the race, that is, above all of the Derby hats?

A: Churchill goes out of its way to sell every inch of the place, so you don’t have a good view of the whole track. The backside is blocked because there’s extra seating. The rail is worse because you won’t see the backstretch. There are obstructed views wherever you go, but even so, there’s nothing like it when this thundering herd comes by. It’s a rite of passage.

Q: While you’re in Louisville for the Derby, where do you go?

A: Jack Fry’s is a great Southern restaurant. I recommend the shrimp and grits. It’s a real throwback – they have a live piano player most nights. There’s a neat hotel downtown called 21c Museum Hotel. They’re always having an art exhibition, and there’s a restaurant called Proof. I recommend their Kentucky trout tartare. And there’s the Muhammad Ali Center and Louisville Slugger Museum, so my two other loves besides horse racing: boxing and baseball.

Q: Where do you stay when you’re in town?

A: The hotels in Louisville triple, quadruple their rates during the Derby, so lately when I take the family, we stay in Lexington. It’s a 70-mile trip, but smooth sailing along I-64. And it’s beautiful. If you can picture acres and acres of Kentucky bluegrass, subtle, rolling hills, barns 100 yards off from the roads. It’s picturesque.

Lexington itself is a small, lively city, more laid back than Louisville, which that time of year is like Bourbon Street, everyone’s going from bar to bar. The kids love it, but I’m looking for a different atmosphere. Lexington is true horse country.

Q: What is there to see around Lexington?

A: A few miles outside the city are some horse farms where you can see past Derby winners. Three Chimneys Farm is one I recommend. Kentucky Horse Park is another: John Henry and other old-time thoroughbreds were stabled there. Its museum takes you through the history, goes back to the 1700s when thoroughbreds began – it’s a relatively young species – and to the 1800s when racing latched on here.

And then there’s my favorite racetrack, Keeneland. It’s so idyllic. All of these mature trees that act as barriers to the parking lot, and as you enter through this great, big stone entrance, you see this pastureland. They only run in April and October, but you can take a tour of it on Derby weekend.

Q: Any other favorite racetracks?

A: Few tracks, frankly, rate to Keeneland. Especially now that so many have become “racinos,” a combination of a racetrack and casino. Still there are a few that are quite nice: Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; Arlington Park near Chicago; Lone Star Park in the Dallas-Fort Worth area; Monmouth Park Racetrack, along the Jersey Shore.

And Belmont Park in New York – that’s the Taj Mahal. You can see the whole track from any seat.