Where else in the world do children get out of school the day before a horse race? Only in Louisville, so far as we know.
Derby season gives Louisvillians a sense that –for a week or so, anyway– they are at the center of the world, or at least the sporting world. The hotels fill up, restaurants and bars raise their prices (although they deny it), limousines appear on the streets from all over the Midwest. There are parties galore after the spring meet opens at Churchill Downs (the weekend before the first Saturday in May), B-list celebrities like Kid Rock and Chaka Khan arrive at the airport, and people who live here either embrace it all, or leave town on vacation (some even rent out their houses for Derby Week). There’s a big parade, a balloon race, a steamboat regatta and a marathon, among other events.
And all growing out of a single Moment: pitting the nation’s best three-year-old Thoroughbreds against each other for a two-minute race. People who don’t even care about racing memorize the post positions, and bestow sudden celebrity on horse trainers Nick Zito, Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas.
Our four-hour daily morning news program — WDRB-TV’s Fox in the Morning — originates from the backside of the Downs the week before the Derby. At 5 a.m. we’re reminded of the rural roots of horse racing. We’re just feet from the stables with their attendant odors and the quiet pre-dawn sounds of bird chirps and horse neighs.
With 134 years of Derby tradition, it’s no wonder that collectors eagerly snap up any and all items relating to the Derby. Louisville has dozens of people who collect the plastic pins issued annually by the Kentucky Derby Festival (not connected to the horse race itself). Others accumulate the yearly-updated mint julep glasses sold at the racetrack and at every local grocery. Then there are the jockey bobble-heads, advertising signs and Derby winner prints, Derby saddle cloths and blankets. As always, ephemera like race-day programs and parimutuel tickets (especially from historic Derbys like Secretariat’s, 1973) carry the most value.
Local retailers like “Party Kits and Equestrian Gifts” and “Taste of Kentucky” specialize in Derby-bilia for parties.
Here are two dishes long associated with Derby entertaining:
Kentucky Derby Pie
(“Kentucky Derby-Pie” is a registered trademark of Kern Kitchens, Inc., but many versions abound.)
Single pie crust (which you can make from your own recipe, but a refrigerated store-bought crust is more than acceptable).
1/2 cup butter, melted and cooled
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 1/2 cups chopped pecans
2 tablespoons Kentucky Bourbon (optional)
Beat eggs with cooled butter. Add flour & sugar. Beat until mixed well. Stir in pecans, chocolate & bourbon. Pour mixture into pie shell. Bake at 350∞ for about 30 minutes, or until set. Serve warm with fresh whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, or both.
The Hot Brown
The “Hot Brown” (open-faced sandwich) was developed at Louisville’s historic Brown Hotel. In the 1920s, the hotel held dinner-dances, and when the dancing stopped, patrons had a taste for a late-night snack. Tired of the same old ham-and-eggs, chef Fred Schmidt invented the Mornay-sauce-topped “Hot Brown,” which is still served at the hotel today.
4 oz. butter
Flour to make a roux (about 6 tablespoons)
3 – 3 1/2 cups milk
1 beaten egg
6 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 oz. whipped cream (optional)
salt and pepper to Taste
Slices of Roast Turkey
8-12 slices of toast (may be trimmed)
Extra Parmesan for topping
8-12 Strips of fried bacon
Melt butter and add enough flour to make a reasonably thick roux (enough to absorb all the butter). Add milk and Parmesan cheese. Add egg to thicken sauce, but do not allow sauce to boil. Remove from heat. Fold in whipped cream. Add salt and pepper to taste.
For each Hot Brown, place two slices of toast on a metal (or flameproof) dish. Cover the toast with a liberal amount of turkey. Pour a generous amount of sauce over the turkey and toast. Sprinkle with additional Parmesan cheese. Place entire dish under a broiler until the sauce is speckled brown and bubbly. Remove from broiler, cross two pieces of bacon on top, and serve immediately.