If I had a bucket list, going to the Kentucky Derby would not have been on it.
I know a lot of people get really excited about it, and some even throw Derby-watching parties in states that are, in fact, not Kentucky — my friend Laura made a Prince-themed Derby hat complete with purple symbol and glued-on "Little Red Corvette" Hot Wheels toy car for her Derby party in Massachusetts — but I was never particularly interested. I chalk up my apathy to not being the betting type as well as worrying about the wellbeing of the horses.
So imagine my surprise when Dan was like, "You're going to the Kentucky Derby." Not, Hey, Marci, would you like to go to the Kentucky Derby? Like, a command.
See, very fancy watch brand Longines invited him to attend the 142nd Kentucky Derby, of which they are the official timekeeper, but he had to go to a wedding. So, at the almost-last-minute, he decided to send me in his place.
"You know I haven't gone on a vacation in over a decade, right?" I told him, freaking out slightly over the idea of, you know, going somewhere.
"It's not a vacation. It's a press trip," he said. "And besides, you need to travel more."
OK, he's right. (As usual.) I haven't left the Northeast in almost two years. I just never imagined that the first place I'd travel to after so long would be Kentucky — or Kentuckiana, as I soon learned the Louisville area is called.
In fact, I learned quite a few things as a first-timer at the Kentucky Derby, some of which were just as surprising to me as the fact that I was even there.
Start preparing your outfit weeks, if not months, in advance.
I had only a couple weeks to figure out what I wanted to wear, but I had virtually no time (or budget, considering I basically emptied my bank account on a recent move) to shop. All I knew is that I was going to two race days and one semiformal cocktail party.
The only advice I got from past attendees was that hats are a must at Churchill Downs, that race attire is basically the same attire you'd wear to a garden party (which is a thing I've never been to), and that I should wear flats or wedges because I'd be walking through heel-unfriendly dirt and grass. (Except I wouldn't be — more on that later.)
I ended up yanking two Karina dresses and the Banana Republic dress I ended up not wearing to my niece's bat mitzvah almost two years ago (the last time I left the northeast; it was in far-flung Maryland) from my closet the night before my flight, grabbed two of my most basic, go-with-everything pairs of shoes — black, pointy kitten heels and black ballet flats — and stuffed it all into my carry-on with a hat I kind of didn't even pick out myself (more on that later, too), all in an effort to fit into the scene.
While I sufficiently looked the part — when I understood some guy's Dimebag Darrell reference, he was shocked that "someone dressed like" me knew who that was — I realized that my favorite outfits at Churchill Downs didn't compromise personal style. I saw women who absolutely followed the dress code, but did so with incredible creativity and chicness. These women did not pack the night before. They'd likely thought about their Derby outfits months before, the way I start thinking about Halloween costumes in July.
Longines Kentucky Oaks Fashion Contest
On the off chance that I ever get the opportunity to go back — and I get more advanced warning — I am going all out.
Go with the fascinator.
When I knew I'd have to wear a hat — and that a baseball cap would be frowned upon — I inexplicably ruled out fascinators, which are more of a decorative headpiece than a hat. Maybe I just wanted to ensure that people wouldn't invade my personal space, but I had my heart set on wearing a wide-brim hat.
ModCloth kindly sent me a few options the day before I left, and I went with their Depths of My Sol Sun Hat for both my Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby outfits because a) it's black and it goes with everything and b) it's "crushable," so it easily survived being in my carry-on with stuff like a portable steamer smushed in next to it.
Even though I really liked this hat, I immediately started getting fascinator envy when I arrived at the track. A fascinator is essentially just a headband with a bunch of stuff on it, but there were no two that looked alike, and they all looked so snazzy. Plus, they were probably more comfortable to wear as it got warmer, whereas I was getting all sorts of sweaty under my hat, despite it being relatively lightweight.
Situational impostor syndrome is real.
The advice I'd been given about not wearing heels was irrelevant, as Longines arranged for us to spend the race days in The Mansion at Churchill Downs, which is basically the most luxurious way to watch the Kentucky Derby. We literally had to walk the red carpet to even get to it.
It was an absolutely beautiful space filled with tufted couches valued at more than my life, servers that were flown in because they're just that good at serving (shout-out to Andre, my favorite), chefs and bartenders who should insure their incredibly talented hands, and insanely wealthy people and celebrities.
I actually apologized as I asked for an iced coffee when we first arrived. Apologized.
Sure, I wasn't the original invitee, and sure, I'm not wealthy or famous, but I had a Mansion wristband on like the rest of those VIPs, and not because I stole it or anything. I was allowed to be there — welcome there — but man, did I feel like a fraud!
Luckily, I befriended writers from Essence and Town & Country who were on the trip with me — and also weren't old money (or new money, or any money) — and we never let each other slip into a full-on impostor syndrome panic.
You can dress a slimeball in a classy pink blazer and put him in an elegant setting, but he's still a slimeball.
Not long after I met one of the other media personalities on the trip — we'll call him Turd-Marie — he was already calling his ex-girlfriend a "hooker." From that point on, I decided not to engage with him much, but since our group was pretty small and he was rather gregarious, interaction wasn't completely avoidable.
As we all gathered on the Mansion balcony for the long-awaited main Derby race, my new friends and I stood behind the wooden railing on the third-highest platform, while Turd-Marie stood with a few other people on the platform in front of us, about half a foot lower. Mere moments before the horses left the gate — and I'm quite sure he timed it that way so he would have an excuse to immediately turn around and watch the race, leaving me unable to effectively reply — he motioned his non-drink-holding hand toward my chest, slowly clenched his fist in search of an uncomfortably close fist bump (so much for the hat ensuring more personal space), and out of nowhere, said, "I love your tattoos, I love your swag, and I love your rack."
I didn't know what to say, but I felt my eyebrows move into to "excuse me?" position.
"If you didn't have a boyfriend," he continued, bringing up the only personal thing I'd told him about myself, probably in hopes of avoiding something exactly like this, "I'd be all over it."
He licked his teeth at me, turned around to face the track, and the horses were off.
And so was my mood, at least for a while.
The Skins are effing great.
I'd noticed that Adrian Grenier has been championing a band called The Skins on his Instagram for some time, and I was excited to finally see them live at Vanity Fair's party at 21C Museum Hotel. (I had to go from Brooklyn to Kentucky to see a Brooklyn-based band. Of course.)
I was so damn impressed with their sound and energy, and I can't urge you enough to check them out.
Lady Antebellum is effing great.
I'm not a big contemporary country-music fan, but I got chills when Lady Antebellum sang the National Anthem in harmony. OK, the chills were partly due to the fact that it suddenly started raining during their performance, but that only made me respect their talent and composure even more. It was easily the best live National Anthem I'd ever witnessed in person.
Here's the performance, courtesy of some guy who filmed his TV:
Mint juleps are effing great.
I'd somehow never had a mint julep before! But hey, there's no better place to have your first than at the Kentucky Derby, amirite?
Turns out, I really like mint juleps. I had four in two days, and they even let us keep the glasses as souvenirs! (I only kept two, I swear.)
Bath & Body Works Body Lotion is pretty good at smoothing frizz
Being that I travel so infrequently, I am terrified of bringing too many liquid-based products in my carry-on for fear that they will arrest me for failing to be the best possible citizen, so I didn't bring a single styling product for my hair. Not wise, considering there was plenty of humidity just waiting to poofify my hair.
The Galt House Hotel provided little bottles of Bath & Body Works Rainkissed Leaves Body Lotion, and although the name makes me cringe, I can't say a single bad thing about what it does when put on hair. I was hoping it would smooth mine out a bit, and it did — its shea butter and jojoba oil are found in plenty of frizz-smoothing hair products — with no icky consequences.
If the opportunity for me to return to the Kentucky Derby ever arises in future years, I think I'll definitely go again, even without the fanciest of schmancy access. I might even enjoy it more than I did this inaugural time (minus the whole Turd-Marie incident).
And by the way, if you, too, are concerned about what happens to the horses after the race, you can support TROTT: Training Racehorses Off The Track. The organization rehabilitates and retrains off-track thoroughbred ex-racehorses so they learn new skills in order to live a safe, happy life in new homes, even taking them back in if those new homes don't work out.