Women in enormous hats sip on expensive mixed drinks. Men in polished seersucker suits puff on fresh cigars. And as horses race around the track at Kentucky’s famous Churchill Downs, they cheer in a refined manner, as if they were royalty.
If this is what you imagine the Kentucky Derby is like, you’re dead wrong. The infield — or the cheap seats — is where most Derby-goers experience the day’s races. Many of these infielders won’t see a single horse. Yes, they’ve come in the hopes of winning bets on some horses, but most will end up staying because they are too debilitatingly intoxicated to find the exit gate. This is the Kentucky Derby underground: As the wealthy elite sit comfortably in the grandstands, the infielders engage in a full-on, social-class riot. And as you would expect for poor college students, this is where you’ll find a few hundred of your Northwestern pals.
The infield, a large patch of grass and mud that is surrounded by the racetrack, is only accessible by a few tunnels. As I entered the darkened tunnel at 10 a.m., shirtless men of all shapes and sizes were stumbling around, chanting, “U-S-A, U-S-A!” Clearly, the drinking had already begun.
My partners in crime and I walked through the crowd with fold-up chairs upon our backs in search of a spot to set up camp. Along the way, one of my slightly intoxicated friends decided to acquaint himself with the army of police personnel ahead of us. “You always want to be on the good side of the law,” he remarked. He walked right up to an officer in uniform and stuck out his hand. “Good to have you here, sir.”
Without missing a beat, the officer grabbed my friend’s hand and immediately brought it up to his nose. “Have you been smoking weed?” the officer inquired. “You need to get out of here right now.”
My friend denied the charge, retreated his hand and quickly walked away. He hadn’t smoked anything. By all accounts, the law enforcement in the infield was not here to take matters lightly, nor enjoy the pleasure of a firm handshake.
After we set up our gear, we were greeted by a young, sloppily dressed guy who extended his hand and introduced himself as “Four-Fingered Billy.” His introduction helpfully gave me a moment to figure out where to place my pinky finger as I shook his hand, because he seemed to be missing his. Four-Fingered Billy said that if we really wanted a good time, we’d better head to turn three. (At the Derby, people use the turns of the racetrack to mark the location of important things such as a food stand or a mud pile.) He had been there earlier and it was, in his opinion, “where the party was at.”
When my friends and I made it to the third turn, we reached a Mardi Gras party on steroids, with little dashes of ecstasy. Surprisingly, this was where all of the awkward Northwestern students took up post. Our chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, I found out, brought students to the Downs via charter bus for about $150 per person. This apparently did not cover the cost of $7 beers, as I was asked repeatedly by a handful of students to buy them “just one more round, bro.” In hindsight, it perhaps wasn’t a good idea to wear my bright, purple Northwestern shirt.
When not drinking, some people in the third turn did obscene things for beads while others, including a few Northwesterners, rolled around in the dirt playing mud ball. This rarely heard about sport, similar to soccer, involves a ball and a lot of intoxicated infielders. There is no point system, so no one wins — they mostly jump, slide and scream for no reason whatsoever. And, hey, it entertains them for hours.
But when the infielders sober up enough to realize that they’re actually at the biggest horse race in the world, they gather around the large monitors scattered about the infield to watch the Run for the Roses, the biggest race of the day.
This year, favorite Big Brown took home the title. However, a sobering moment occurred when we found out that Eight Belles, the horse which finished second in the race, collapsed just after crossing the finish line and broke both of her front ankles. She was euthanized on the spot.
In shock, we packed up our things and headed for exit tunnels. We couldn’t help but think that horse racing can be such a cruel sport for these animals.
As we reached the exit gates, a man shouted out in frustration from behind me. “Darn it! I didn’t see any boobies today! Someone give me some beads so I can see me some boobies!”
I was quickly reminded that this was the infield, where seersucker-less drunkards not only have no time for feelings, but no time for dignified class either. But it was also at that moment I realized that sitting in the infield is not about class and it’s most certainly not about money. These people –Northwestern students included — make fools out of themselves here. In the end, this social-class riot is not a class war of superiority, but a full-on battle for people to have the time of their lives on one sunny, Saturday afternoon each year. And if that’s what it’s really all about, you’ll be sure to find me at the next social class riot in 2009.