COME ON RED
We were late. We had cleared the entrance gate but my uncle was still unsettled. "Come on buddy, we've got to get to the "Infield"."
We rushed under a dark green stands that stair-stepped to cathedral ceiling height, then we met a knot of people jostling each other for position at the head of a tunnel. We squeezed our way into the group, my uncle's sure hands gripping my shoulders. Our steps became like wooden soldiers'. We were bumped and rocked as the floor of the tunnel fell away and the walls and ceiling started to enclose us. I could view only the ceiling. Its dank concrete darkened as we progressed, yellowed in spots by caged light bulbs. Alone, I would have feared this place. Instead, I felt the expectant excitement radiating from the bodies that pressed us on.
Now and then I heard a pounding from above that alarmed me. But my uncle's pats told me all was well. He knew the sound of horses warming up.
But we moved slowly and when we heard a thunder overhead, my uncle, too, became agitated knowing the "Derby" had started.
The rumble caused the crowd to press anxiously forward. My uncle's grip grew viselike. Luckily, the gray ceiling started to brighten. The flat footing turned upward. The tunnel crowd thinned away and the noise became a roar. We ascended into the "Derby Infield."
People were everywhere. Noise came from all directions. I saw a college boy screaming as he clapped soggy beer cups with his pal. Another grinned contentedly from under the girl he held of his shoulders. An older man, standing on his chair, argued with images he followed in his binoculars. Most others trained their eyes toward the racetrack. Many hollered what seemed to be the same phrase. I strained to make it out. But each yell drowned the other; "Raee....Kum....Ree...."
Into this roar, another sound began building, a muffled pounding of hooves in rapid succession. The crowd yearned toward the rail, building its noise level with that of the pounding. I heard my uncle chanting in a low, determined voice; "Come on Red, Come on Red..."
The pounding moved away and soon the din settled, followed by wild screams from sporadic enclaves of winning bettors. They contrasted with the dejected faces making up the majority. I looked to my uncle and saw a solemn expression I'd only seen on him at his brother's funeral. But this time the expression disappeared when he retrieved some Bond-Lillard from his back pocket and took a healthy gulp. He found his glasses and unfolded his Racing Form to the next race. His actions filled me with hope that I'd get to experience this all again.
Amazingly, I spotted a place next to the rail and pulled my uncle to it. I searched up and down the track for horses. I saw dark green tractors pulling large rakes. They churned up the dirt into fluff. I wanted to jump into it and rub it all over me. Another tractor towed a white and green structure that I supposed was the starting gate. I followed it until it disappeared behind fans along the turning rail. Across the track a zillion people milled about in the stands. How could they be so nonchalant? I turned toward the "Infield" to re-experience the excitement. A college couple made out on a blanket a few steps away. A man staggered, missed licking his thumb, and counted a few bills he held before him. Another lay face down and shirtless on the grass, his back grilled from winter white to don't-touch pink. People were picking up blankets and coolers and heading toward the tunnel.
I stayed confused by all this disinterest until I heard a horn blaring from the track. I rotated to see a man in a bright red coat and black cap blowing a long golden trumpet. His shiny black boots were ankle deep in the dirt.
Horses paraded onto the racetrack. They pranced; they jogged; they cantered. They nodded their heads up and down and shook them side to side. Their jockeys sat on them like knights in colorful coats of arms. I gawked at them until they disappeared in the direction of the starting gate. More people moved to the rail. The P. A. announcer declared; "It is now post time." The remaining crowd became refocused and when he shouted , "They're off!", the noise began to imitate that of the Derby roar.
When I saw them my ears went deaf to the loud surroundings. But I could hear what hypnotized me as though my eyes were feeding me both sight and sound. First the pounding as they lunged and dug toward me. Then the whip smacks and the snorts as they sped by. Then the pounding again until they were out of sight. I took a breath. I turned to my uncle. He smiled as if to say, "I know."
The next race was the last of the day and even though most of the fans had left, it affected me the same way. Afterward, my uncle rubbed my head, telling me that it was time for us, too, to leave.
We made our way back through the tunnel. I ran and jumped, trying to touch one of the caged light bulbs on the ceiling.
My uncle's pick in that 1956 Derby, an outsider, didn't win. But when he made his stretch drive to run third, I don't remember hearing "come on Needles" just "Come on Red."
Not having a son, my uncle wanted to show me the "Derby." He did.
Could he have known that by taking me that day he would also be giving me Cahokia Downs and The Curraugh; Flemington and Longchamps; and the "Derby Infield" for my very own?
He did that too.
(The writer, President of HorseWorldData.com is a Louisville native who has been to every Derby Infield between 1960 and 2011 plus the "Come on Red" Derby.)