A Derby Story 


THE TUNNEL

To me the Derby is a family affair. And an infield affair.

My wife Judy and I first attended the Derby with her mother, aunt and uncle before we were married. We went to the infield. We were dressed as if we were going to church, the ladies in high heels. We took a picnic lunch and a cooler of beer. It was such fun, like a summer outing at a local park with an added rite of spring vibe. We strolled around the infield and chatted with some of the other folks. We bet the races. We rooted for our picks. The horses seemed just as happy to run as we were to watch them. After the Derby we ambled our way through the tunnel connecting the infield to the grandstand then out of the Downs, tired but joyful.

I joined the Army. Judy and I were married. We were blessed with three children. We would occasionally be in Louisville at Derby time. I would attend the Derby with Judy’s brother and sisters and their spouses. Judy would watch the race with her mother and all the grandchildren.

The infield began taking on a different air. It was more casual, more crowded and much rowdier. It was no longer a venue to “Mema’s” (the name given Judy’s mom by our first born and her first grandchild) liking. Churchill managed the larger crowds using a second tunnel under the track for entrance and exit to Fourth Street.

The second tunnel worked well for entrance into the infield since fans entered the track over the course of the morning and early afternoon. It was a different story leaving the track. After the Derby most of the infield crowd wants to leave at the same time. The tunnel quicky becomes clogged. The movement through it becomes a shuffle. Derby revelers begin mooing as they see themselves as cattle. It makes one think about soccer crowds in other countries.

Our family moved back to Louisville and I began to go to the Derby each year. After each one the family would talk about infield happenings. Little ears would hear some of our talk and think about the day they might be allowed to go themselves. But we knew the infield wasn’t for children.

Yet children grow up. My daughter, Donna, graduated from high school and enrolled at Eastern Kentucky University. In her sophomore year, she and some friends decided to come to the Derby. I was OK with it but a little anxious.

As it turned out, Donna’s friends backed out. Seeing her disappointment, I asked her if she’d like to go with the family. Somewhat taken back she said, “Can I, Dad?” “Yes, Sweetie, I said, it’ll be great fun to have you with us.”

We all went to that Derby. Donna saw things she had never seen before. She also saw the races and the horses and rite of spring that I had seen on my first infield visit.

Then it was time to go. Donna and I and her aunt Mary Anne headed to the tunnel as it began to rain. As usual it was packed. I knew Donna was a little claustrophobic and saw that she was upset. Halfway down the ramp to the tunnel she turned to me and said, “I Can’t, Dad. I Can’t do it.”

We were surrounded by tired, sweaty, alcohol laden fans pushing us forward. I simply turned facing those behind us and announced, “She’s pregnant, we have to get out!” The three of us slowly began to inch against the tide of humanity as I repeated the phrase over and over.

We finally cleared the tunnel ramp and Donna could breathe easily. We searched for cover and as the rain became heavy we chose to duck into the ladies’ rest room. Low and behold, as though waiting for us, we found two women with a wagon and a plastic container full of bourbon they wanted to share with a father, daughter and aunt.

We toasted the Derby while we waited for the tunnel to clear.

From that time on Donna could tell her own Derby stories. Another first for her among “Mema’s” 12 grandchildren.

We lost Donna a few years back. I think of her all the time. When I think of the Derby I think of my daughter Donna and the tunnel.



John Buckman – U.S. Army, retired; Sacred Heart Academy, retired

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