Memories & Memorabilia – Written by Heidi Carpenter

                                            My First Saturday in May

Heidi Carpenter's view of the iconic "Twin Spires" of Churchill Downs, at her first Kentucky Derby in 2000
Heidi Carpenter’s view of the iconic Twin Spires of Churchill Downs, at her first Kentucky Derby in 2000

We arrived outside the gates a little after 7am. By then, the line stretching along  the wall outside the track was only a few dozen paces long.  We had nearly  an hour to wait. I watched  as an endless parade of people carrying blankets, lawn chairs, and bags of food trickled past us and toward the end of the line. Everyone chatted, smiled and laughed. The sun was rising in a clear sky, and it was becoming warm. It was going to be a good day.

Abruptly, the line moved forward and after a brief security check, we were moving through the gates. We walked a ways before descending into a large tunnel. The clammy tunnel air and realization that I was walking beneath the final turn of Churchill Downs–the final turn of the Kentucky Derby!–caused goosebumps to spread over my arms.

The tunnel tipped upwards and we were back in the sun again. And without ado, they were there–standing proud and tall against the clear morning sky, sentinels of the past one hundred and four (now five) Kentucky Derbies–the twin spires. I walked over the lawn of the infield, my eyes held captivated by the spires. We found a spot close to the chain link fence, by the top of the homestretch. We spread our blanket, unfolded our chairs and introduced ourselves to our blanket neighbors.  Throughout it all, my eyes returned again and again to the great spread of the near-empty Churchill Downs grandstand  and the twin spires punctuating the sky above.

The year was 2000; I was three months shy of 20 and attending my first Kentucky Derby with my parents. We were veterans of over half a dozen visits to Lexington, Kentucky but the timing had not been right for a trip to the Kentucky Derby until that year. I had been horse-crazy for as long as I could remember–perhaps, with a horse-crazy mom and aunt, it was partly genetic. Always aware of the nobility of the horse, at a young age I found that horse racing expressed this power and majesty like no other equestrian sport. And thus, my parents–always up for an adventure (and mom likely glad I shared her love for horses, which granted an excuse for these excursions)–were willing to make trips from the Chicago suburbs to Lexington, my younger brother and I in tow (my brother wasn’t enthusiastic about spending so much time around horses, but we often stopped at the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, OH, afterwards to appease him).

The first trip that I remember was in 1990, and the most memorable was in 1994. That year, we visited Claiborne Farm. That visit alone is worthy of  reminiscing on another day, but  highlights included seeing the perennial top stallion, Mr. Prospector, top Northern Dancer son Danzig and the main Claiborne stallion cemetery–the final resting place of the great Secretariat, among others. Further trips to Lexington over the years followed, but none quite held the magic of that 1994 stop at Claiborne Farm.

The morning of the 2000 Kentucky Derby was spent napping in the sun, reading the race program, and walking around the infield. A steady trickle of people arrived until late morning and by noon, the infield party was in full swing. The crowd was a mix of middle-aged folks resting on blankets and in lawn chairs, couples, and large groups of college kids. While it was clear that some of these kids would be passed-out drunk by the time the Derby horses began the post parade, most people were there to experience the races first and party second.  Although the morning dragged on, the afternoon flew by thanks to the Derby undercard, and in no time, my parents and I were pressed up to the chain link fence as the crowd sang “My Old Kentucky Home” and the horses paraded before the grandstand.

We were lucky enough to have a good view of the starting gate–or as good a view one can have through several chain link fences. The gates opened and the crowd roared so loudly that I could hear it well–no easy feat considering I am hard of hearing. The horses sped by us for the first time and I watched the race on the monitor across from us as I waited with the camera ready. The field re-appeared and the crowd roared again. Among the mess of colors, I could make out the red and yellow silks of Fusaichi Pegasus sweeping by on the outside. Then as quickly as they appeared, the horses were again out of sight–the roar of the crowd following them–and I watched the monitor as ‘FuPeg’ became the first Kentucky Derby favorite to win since Spectacular Bid in 1979. Fusaichi Pegasus was sired by Mr. Prospector (who had died earlier that year) and was out of a Danzig mare. In a way, a curtain had opened and closed with Mr. Prospector, for the 2000 Kentucky Derby was the last family trip I would make with my parents, as it was time for me to leave the nest. That Kentucky Derby was my first and so far, only, although my husband and I travel to Kentucky often for the races. Perhaps someday again I will find myself pressed up against that chain link fence, waiting for the Kentucky Derby field to race by for the second time.

The infield "throng" at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day.
The infield “throng” at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day.
Carpenter's view of the horses breaking from the starting gate.
Carpenter’s view of the horses breaking from the starting gate.
Another shot from the Churchill infield on Kentucky Derby Day 2000.
Another shot from the Churchill infield on Kentucky Derby Day 2000.

We thank Heidi for sharing her story! You can follow her on Twitter at @AmandaBry91. You can also check her out at her site:

“Through The Eyes of a Deaf Equine Fanatic”

If you’d like to share your awesome race story on Memories & Memorabilia, just send a brief description of your special moment or item (along with a photo, if possible) to 

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