Horses silhouetted against the rising sun

Dawn at the Downs

By the time you read this, the frenzy leading up to the most exciting two minutes in sports (really, it is!) will be over. Most of the hordes that have descended on Louisville will have been whisked back home, Derby already a memory for them. But I’ll still be here, the clock re-set for the countdown to next Derby.

These kind of extravaganzas are a different game altogether for locals – I imagine it’s a similar feeling for people who live in Super Bowl cities, or Olympics and such. We watch the streams of people pouring into our city and wonder what they think as they take it all in. And funnily enough, all the excitement is around an event that plenty of us don’t actually attend.

I’ve been to Derby exactly once, in college, when I went to the infield, requisite pint of vodka tucked in my shirt and tried all day without success to see a horse. I swore I’d not go back until I could afford a proper seat. I still can’t, so every year I watch the Derby on television, even when I can practically hear the strains of My Old Kentucky Home floating on the breeze from the track two miles from my house. Actually, I’m not often at my house Derby day – I’ve rented it more years than not to travelers who are willing to pony up some big bucks for a temporary home instead of an overpriced hotel.

But I don’t feel like I’m missing that much by not being among the throngs of hats bobbing around in the crush at the track Derby day. Living here means I can do what a lot of the tourists who swoop in and out for just the weekend can’t; I can see the horses working out as the sun comes up over the twin spires (and the monstrosity of a television screen they’ve mounted at the track).

A racehorse takes a peppermint break during his morning workout

At Dawn at the Downs you are close enough to touch the horses – and people do. Those who know the secret – that racehorses have a jonesing for peppermint candies – will hold out their treats under flaring nostrils and chomping teeth as the great creatures carefully nuzzle the candy from the outstretched palm. The tickling sensation and warm breath on your hand is enough to elicit shrieks and giggles from grown adults (well, from this one anyway).

You’re close enough to hear the rhythm of the hooves chopping up the track, to watch the clods of dirt flying up under the whirling hooves. You can hear the whoosh of every breath as the beasts fly out of the brightening sky, in and out, in and out as they fight their riders, seeking more speed. You don’t need a sentimental song or mint julep in hand to feel the growing lump in your throat at the almost painful beauty of a silhouetted horse standing proud on the track, the track where so many dreams are dashed, but a very few are found.

Yeah, one of these days I’ll go to the real Derby. But until then, my Derby experience is Wednesday morning.

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Dana is a Louisville then Detroit food and travel writer, adventurer, serial learner of sports, and bourbon enthusiast. She has written for outlets including NBCNews.com, Fodors.com, Elle, Chicago Tribune, and the Louisville Courier Journal.