Thoughts on the Kentucky Derby

This is personal, so hopefully it will "work" for a reader who does not know me well. You do know yourself well, and for sure you will have had a similar experience or positive recollection you can plug into your walk down memory lane. Here goes with mine.

The Kentucky Derby is the premium horse race in the United States, a claim based on 145 years of  history. At one and a quarter miles, the Derby is run on the first Saturday of May every year. It is one of the Triple Crown of horse racing and is held at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Only three horses have finished in less than two minutes for the one-and-a-quarter mile track, with the famed Secretariat holding the record at 1:59:40 in 1973. Fashions are paramount with the see-and-be-seen crowd, modeled after European races with extravagant ladies' hats taking the prize. Adult beverages are prominant with the signature Mint Juleps the favorite. All this information may be found on Wikipedia or other sites. For me, the Derby means much more.

My mother grew up in Danville, in the central part of the state: Bluegrass country. It was made clearly understood to me that Kentucky was a special place. My sister and I spent a month every summer visiting Mom's brother and his family.  We lived in Paintsville, part of the state known distinctively (and perhaps dismissively by some) as "Eastern Kentucky," where Daddy worked as the sales manager for a GM dealership in that small county seat. He had been with GM for some time, in accounting and finance at the GM regional HQ in Huntington, WV when we moved to Paintsville with the understanding he would learn the retail business and buy a General Motors dealership (Chevrolets and Oldsmobiles, as I recall) from an aging dealer. That did not work out for reasons of Dad's alcoholism and other reasons way above my young ken. Daddy felt he was edged out by the dealer's oldest son who suddenly became rehabilitated from a life of fraternity excesses at U.K. in Lexington. I was only six when we moved there and ten or so when we left, so clearly I was not in the loop.

On to Derby Day, as it was known, which was a big deal to my mother - and to me. It meant my sister, Sally and I were allowed to go barefoot for the first time of the year. In practice, this meant I was barefoot until school started once again in the fall. Sunday mornings were excepted, naturally, as Sunday School and the (boring to a young kid) Methodist church services were mandatory. We were in a county bordering with West Virginia, and the only television was over the air from two stations in Huntington. Imagine that! We were so backward that a prime contact with modernity was from West Virginia!

I do remember being imprinted strongly with "Kentucky-ism." My maternal first cousins in Danville were four or five hours away on winding roads, but very close in terms of family ties. It was a Tom Sawyer boyhood for me: rafting on Paint Creek, chasing imaginary Indians through the thick weeds - kicking up dust after the numerous creek floods, and hikes around the local hills. The hills were said to be inhabited by "Turkey Knobbers" who were wild and lived as savages on Turkey Knob, where ever that was. We were told they captured town kids and tied us up as they did "bad things," so we were never to venture up into the hollers. We did, of course, but fortunately never saw any Turkey Knobbers and thus were spared the horrors thereof.

Oh, back to the Derby. On Derby Day Mom always made something special for us to eat while we watched the race on television. She had an RN degree from Norton Infirmary in Louisville and worked for the state, specifically for the Johnson County Health Department based in Paintsville. She was based out of the office in town, but had to drive out "in the county" as she said, to find outlying families who needed help or some sort of required medical checks. Occasionally I would go out with her, on a school holiday or other special occasion, and vaguely recall the trips transitioning from the pretty good state roads to smaller and less well-maintained county byways, and then to dirt roads, which eventually got worse and worse until she would park the Chevy at the very end and we would walk to find the house where the person lived. These houses usually were not painted; they ranged from fairly decent places, all the way to shacks and worse. Most had no electricity, and of course outhouses of various shapes and conditions were the standard. Water came from a well, or sometimes from a creek or a spring nearby.

Oh, back again to the Derby... Of course singing "My Old Kentucky Home" has been a standard since 1930, and we sang the famous first verse in our house along with the crowd at Churchill Downs. A check of Wikipedia or other sources is a "fact-fest" of information about the song. It's surprising that it has escaped the sort of controversy that "The Eyes of Texas" has generated here at the University of Texas,  but Kentucky's official state song is widely played and sung. It's an old minstrel song with resonance on many levels including the loss of home. The word "darkies" was replaced by "people" in 1986 when the state House and Senate adopted the changes officially. On a very personal level, Mother's mother, Mama Jackson, used the term "darkies" as the  proper and courteous term for the black race when we were small. We never used the term since by then it was considered condescending. Again, my apologies for becoming perhaps too personal.

Oh, back yet again to Derby Day... the current television show, a five hour slugfest of history, fashion, and some horse racing interspersed, was sponsored this year in part by Woodward Reserve, a bourbon distillery. The race coverage here at my home includes a finger or two of my favorite bourbon, W.L. Weller. But that's a personal choice. Hmm, too personal again.

If you have made it all the way to the end, thanks! It's been fun a remeninse a bit. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

J.K. George Jr. (at age 79)

Comments are welcome and will be published, pro and con. Make your observations below, or send them to me via email at n3bb@mindspring.com. Email commenters will not be identified.

Enjoy life; it's the only one we will get.

J.K. (Jim) George

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20 Responses

  1. Hello Jim, we have not visited since the last ham fest, not sure which one. I was born in rural Ross county Ohio a bit north and east of Chillicothe. Dad was born in Ray, Ohio and Mother was from Greenup county Kentucky. She grew up in very poor and deprived circumstances on Flat Holler, just across the Ohio river from Portsmouth. Ohio. Having moved to the Portsmouth are as a lad of 12, I had the opportunity to visit Mother's birth place and see some of the roads and houses of which you speak. From the stories she related to my brother and me, I surmise, Derby Day was not even heard of by her family. Not even a mention of a radio. Enjoyed your piece on Derby Day. Regards, Jack Tyler KB5TXS
    • JK James George
      Thanks Jack. Yes, Kentucky (like all states I suppose) had/has the spectrum from very poor/rural to some high-falooting and wealthy areas. And everything between. I 've see 'em both! Jim.
  2. Good story, Jim. The Derby is also a standard event at our house. My wife, Pat had a horse growing up in the lowcountry of South Carolina and is a fan. One of her best friends is a horse trainer and riding coach. Pat attended the Derby in 2001, the year Monarchos won. Not long afterwards, we read the book, Horse of a Different Color written by Jim Squires, the breeder of Monarchos. He was also a retired newspaper editor from Chicago. It's an entertaining read featuring his dominant wife prominently. I also remember that My Old Kentucky Home was the favorite song of my grandmother. Cheers, Curt
    • JK James George
      Hello Curt, and always good to hear from a stauch South Carolinian. Fantastic that you and Pat actually got to the Derby for a live running! Jim.
  3. Wonderful! A different world
  4. Jim had no idea about you and the Derby! We have watched it for many years with hats on and juleps in hand in silver cups passed down from Alstons family. Enthusiastic betting after lots of emailed odds during the week. And we're all still awaiting what's gonna happen with Baggett..... Come have a julep with us next year! Barbara
    • JK James George
      Wow! Hats on and Julips in silver cups. You rock, Barbara! But I do splurge and take my finger of Wellers in a family crystal glass. :-) Thanks, Jim.
  5. Great story Jim. I enjoyed it. Do you still send out notices when a new post is made? If so, I'm not seeing them and you may be sending them to my old email address. I use a gmail address now and it is the address I used to send this post. 73..de John/K4WJ
    • JK James George
      Thans John, and will add you to the "email distribution list" with the current address. 73, Jim N3BB
  6. I was forwarded your writings from a friend. I live in Kentucky and much of what you write is still true today. We have more television channels, but the lush bluegrass allows us to go barefoot most of the summer, and when not barefoot this is flip flop or sandal season. You have excellent taste in bourbon - Weller is a favorite in our home as well. We sing "My Old Kentucky Home" each year and while there has been plenty of controversies, the majority of people continue to hold on to the "sun shining bright on my Old Kentucky Home." I live 30 or so minutes from Danville. While it has grown over the last 20-30 years, it is still a wonderful small town. And East Kentucky has some of the most wonderful, welcoming, and talented individuals you could ever want to meet.
    • JK James George
      Kathleen, we may be siblings separated at birth! Thanks much for the warm and much appreciated comments, and thanks to your friend for forwarding the blog. I agree with all your comments about Kentucky, and still make it back to Danville (from here in Austin) every year or so.
  7. JK James George
    From Anon-1: Well, lucky me for tuning in. The more personal the better for me cuz I get to find out more about my friend. I like that you had a Huck Fin childhood for reals; I just had it in my imagination! I always enjoy reading your posts. I can imagine how exciting the vibe is at the Kentucky Derby. I would like to have experienced it back then and seen all the woman in the fabulous hats and all the beautiful horses. much love, Jim moi
  8. JK James George
    From Anon-2: Thanks for the childhood reflections. We have so much in common. When school was out for the summer, I put on shorts, went barefoot a lot, and played like a native American (called them indians then) in the woods. Only came home at night for the meal. Sometimes slept in the woods. What a great life! Swam in the creek, napped in the grass, ran through the forest, got wet in the warm rain. Many friends went with me. What great memories. Thanks for bringing them alive... Peace,
  9. JK James George
    From Anon-3: Hi Jim, A bit of feedback -- I particularly enjoyed your latest blog about KY and the Derby. And I appreciated how you would stray off-topic slightly and then pull the reader back to the subject. Nice approach - and very effective technique!
  10. JK James George
    From Anon-4: All I can say about the Derby is that this year they eliminated the playing/singing of My Old Kentucky Home. We are letting the inmates run the asylum. It's still the state song of the Commonwealth of Kentucky is it not? (Note, the song was not sung by a performer, but was played by the combined university bands of UL, UK, and another major state university)
  11. JK James George
    From Anon-5: Jim, Enjoyed reading of your boyhood experiences in Kentucky. I was supposed to go to the Kentucky Derby this year as it was a Xmas gift to the horse-race loving wife. On her bucket list. So it’s next year we take a riverboat ride to Louisville. Might as well go first class. The wife will have a blast but I’ll feel like you on Sunday’s… ha.
  12. JK James George
    From Anon-6: The Kentucky Derby Well, Mr. George—that was a delightful read. It comes from the pen of someone who values many of the irreproducible benefits and discoveries that come from growing up within family, within community, and with untamed nature (of the sort that would have terrified Mr. Thoreau [of Walden fame]). I know also that you recognize fully the sharp edged curbs on knowledge and learning that in many such circumstances stunt minds and contort spirits. It is, it seems, a gift of something or another (probably the recipe of specific experiences) that support your ability to communicate all of these things. I’m here to tell you: (a) thanks for what you provide for our group and (b) we have to have some high quality bourbon (if could find or justify the cost of Pappy Van Winkle, some of that, but otherwise Weller…) before many more months slip away.
  13. JK James George
    From Anon-7: Thanks, Jim! I really enjoyed the piece.
  14. JK James George
    From Anon-8: Jim, Great story I never heard from you. Growing up there must have been a blast. Only question is- do you think this years winner was legit? Seems like a lot of controversy.
  15. JK James George
    From Anon-9: Sounds like you are as good as I remember at ....writing interesting stories and as always, straight from your heart. Especially this one. It needed to be personal to be as delightful as it was.

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