She's a Handicapper now..and I'm saying "Champagne, Anyone?"

She's a Handicapper now..and I'm saying "Champagne, Anyone?"

Friday, April 26, 2013

Favorite Oaks Memories - 1996

My wife Sonja and I attend the Kentucky Oaks almost every year. Our spot is usually the infield. We tried the Sports Spectrum last year and had a decent time...that won't be an option this year, since the place is over-run with raccoons and other animals and won't be open.

It's just as well. I prefer my final memories of that place to be those of sitting with our buddy Tom at the Champions Bar...our dearly departed buddy Norma and her brother Ron nearby and Charlotte serving up drinks. No raccoons that day. Sonja picking the winner of the Oaks...choosing the only female jockey in the race...Rosie "Nap" getting the job done.

I don't "do" the Derby. Since the late-eighties, we've attend a Derby Party. It's changed locations a few times over the years...but it's always great fun. I have a job each Derby Day. I can't tell you what it is, but I get to see everyone and write stuff down they tell me.


In 1996, we were ready for the Oaks. We always parked at Reed's house, right on Central Avenue, next to the BP gas station. With my buddies Chris and his wife Linda, we arrived early that morning to help park cars in Reed's back yard and sample Bloody Mary's. The Oaks is run on Friday, for those not familiar with the event...the day before Derby. Back then, it was day-long affair, attending the races, going back to Reed's after the races and drinking until the wee hours of the morning...either hanging out in the back yard or sitting on his front porch...watching the party people walk up and down Central Avenue. They stopped that human parade a few years back. Reed has passed on, we now park at 80 Under 80 and do our thing there...before and after the races.

I devised a plan to smuggle beer into the infield. Each year, I came with a "fool-proof" plan to get the beverages past the check-point and it usually worked. The "false-bottom" cooler idea worked for years, until I got "popped" in 1995 by an over-zealous cub scout, security guy and my beverages were taken away from me. I needed a new plan for 1996 and came up with one. I called Chris and discussed it with him. He liked it. It was two-fold and we stood a good chance of pulling it off.

The idea was to use the bags that one stores fold-up lawn chairs in. By removing the chairs and sliding beer cans into the bags, we discovered that each bag could hold 19 cans of beer. We packed three of these bags full of Budweiser. 57 cans. We also realized that we would need to keep them cold. Part two of the plan was to have Linda roll a wagon in with a cooler on it...full of ice. Underneath the ice was an additional 12 beer. Just in case Plan A failed. If security wanted to check the cooler, it was pre-arranged that their daughter Samantha, who would be sitting atop the cooler, start crying and raising a fuss and refuse to get off the cooler. Eventually, we figured, harried and frustrated security-checkers would just wave her through. Linda had to go to the 4th Street Infield gate to gain entrance. Chris went with her. Sonja and I were going through Gate One.

I was the "mule" for the 57 cans. I hung a bag over each shoulder and one down by back. To cover the obvious...I donned a military parka/raincoat that reached to the ground. The beers were undetectable to the eye. I also had a ball cap on that read "Floor Warden". Why, I have no idea.


Mind you, when we left for the track from Reed's around 11 a.m., it was already 70 degrees and no chance of rain, no clouds in the sky. I looked way out of place amongst the t-shirt and shorts crowd headed to the gates. And 57 beers are heavy. Especially under a rain coat. I was sweating profusely by the time we got to Churchill. I can't tell you exactly how many double glances and weird looks I  got from people...but it was quite a few. One guy even told me it wasn't going to rain, why didn't I take the raincoat off? I told him I was a flasher and had nothing on underneath it. He steered his wife and kids away from me.

We got to the search check-point and I walked right by, since I was not carrying anything that needed to be searched. We headed to the admission gates. Back then, you could use your "points" on your Twin Spires Card to gain admission on Oaks and Derby Day. So, all I had to do was hand my card to the cashier, let her scan it and walk right in. I got to the booth window and handed her the card. She scanned it, smiled and told me to have a good day. She handed it back to me.

I dropped it on the ground.

There was no way I could bend over and pick it up without either exposing the beers on me or having them spill out onto the concrete. I was panic-stricken. Standing at the gate, however, was a older gentleman who was a back-up ticket taker or something for Churchill. I had to think, and think quick. Sonja was behind me. No chance of her picking it up for me.

"Sir, I've recently had back surgery and can't bend over. Could you pick that card up for me?" I politely asked.

It was a desperation "three" at the buzzer. He smiled, stooped over and retrieved it. "Have a nice day" he replied, and handed me the card. I walked on. Sonja caught up with me, laughing and giddy. We walked toward the infield tunnel. Victorious. Little did we know what laid ahead..


As we approached the tunnel, I looked ahead and almost soiled my drawers. In front of me was a squadron of uniformed police officers and deputies. In two columns, about 30 yards apart. I had to walk through the middle of them to gain access to the infield tunnel. I looked so out of place with the raincoat on and sweating in rivets. I started babbling in a Cockney British accent to the startled Sonja.

"By jove, dear...look at it. Legendary Churchill Downs. Quite a bit different that the ol' Epsom Derby. And, look. The Twin Spires! Marvelous, quite right, eh?"

The babble continued. The officers started at me. I smiled at them, and continued the dialogue. I walked quickly through them, praying that one wouldn't approach me. They remained in formation.
I kept going. I cleared them. Sonja snuck a quick peek back and told me..."There's still staring at you." I told her to keep walking. They didn't pursue. We were headed to the tunnel.


It was a long, slow walk through that tunnel to the infield. It was humid and crowded. People hooting and staggering. My back and shoulders felt like I had heavy weights attached to them. My t-shirt was soaked with sweat. We headed to the designated meeting place in the infield. I felt like I was running a marathon. Each step harder and harder. Finally, we got to the patch of grass where we were to meet up. Somehow, amazingly...Chris and Linda had already arrived, even though they had had a much longer trek. I got to the spot, saw Chris drinking a beer and I ripped the raincoat off over my head and raised my arms in triumph. Like Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption when he finally finished crawling through the septic tunnel and reached the stream. I got a big cheer from the surrounding crowd as I took the bags off my body and started dumping beers on the blanket.


I told the story of my trip to them. They told me of their tale, too. Sure enough, security wanted to check inside the cooler on the wagon. Samantha refused to budge. Started screaming and crying, not listening to the threats and admonishment of her parents. Finally, after Linda assured them that there was only ice, soft drinks and sandwiches inside, they waved her through. We had 69 cans of beer, it was 11:30 a.m. and it was a beautiful day.


Sometime shortly before the final race of the day, Chris and I crashed the two final un-consumed cans of Budweiser together, popped the tops and toasted. Between he and I, Linda and Sonja, Mark and Patty and a few new-found "friends" we had managed to drink all 69 beers. Yes, we were blitzed. Even Sonja, who rarely drinks beer. I can't recall much about the day's events after that. I know Chris and I won some races early. I think we both lost on the Kentucky Oaks race. We made money on the day, though....I'm pretty sure. We headed back to Reed's after the races and partied until the early morning. That may have been the year the guy walked up onto Reed's front yard and smashed a half-full bottle of Jack Daniels over the top of his own head and started screaming that he was Jesus Christ. Years tend to run together.

But, the 57 beer mule haul will never be forgotten...


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