Let’s be honest. Frankfort isn’t the place to find the most authentic Kentucky Derby experience on Saturday. For that you need to travel to Churchill Downs and immerse yourself in the most exciting two minutes in sports with all the attendant pageantry, be it in the madness of the infield, the refinement of Millionaires Row or somewhere between. There are Derby events everywhere in Kentucky this weekend but the big race is the real deal.
Nonetheless, the capital city is a good place to start your Derby Day. The Governor’s Derby Breakfast has been a gracious Frankfort tradition since Gov. “Happy” Chandler invited a few close friends to join him at the Executive Mansion in 1936 before making the trip to Louisville. It evolved from an intimate gathering to a frequently crashed invitation-only event for celebrities and watchers, finally becoming a full-blown people’s party at which commoners lined up for free or nominally priced food prepared by the state Parks Department.
The modern edition has taken place both at the Capitol and downtown, where it wound up last year after the tight state budget forced a halt to the giveaway food.
Traditionalists protested, but the move downtown does have some advantages for the Governor’s Derby Celebration (much more than a breakfast) and for the central business district. Today’s downtown, bereft of the big retail stores that moved to the suburbs over latter part of the 20th century, gets a lift from special events, and the Derby fling is one of its best. Those who came last year got a little taste of what the district meant to older residents who remember sidewalks packed every Saturday with shoppers caught up in a veritable cornucopia of hometown pleasures. Back then, it wasn’t just a weekly shopping trip but an occasion to mix and mingle with friends and family on the streets.
This year’s downtown frolic will feature a prominent reminder of those bygone days when the Governor’s Derby Train again disembarks from Broadway along with the RJ Corman Derby Train for passengers not in the governor’s delegation. It’ll be the second time in the past month that a once-familiar mode of transportation has dramatized a downtown celebration. In April, University of Kentucky coach John Calipari rode an RJ Corman train into the capital as part of his tour to show off the Wildcats’ NCAA championship trophy to a crowd of thousands. “It’s like a 1948 political tour,” commented the coach, who seems to have a penchant for showmanship along with his knack for assembling championship basketball teams.
Passenger trains were the conveyance of choice for momentous comings and goings before automotive and air transportation took over in the mid-20th century. It’s fun to see them back downtown, if only temporarily.
Among other diversions for this Saturday’s celebrants are arts and crafts, a medieval enactment on the Old Capitol grounds, musical entertainment and a real live racehorse – which some Derby watchers never see over the course of a bourbon-drenched day in the Churchill Downs infield.
The menus feature traditional Kentucky fare. Although the food’s no longer free, downtown restaurateurs try to make it unique and appealing. Keep in mind that at last year’s celebration, the service started winding down about 11 a.m. Both servers and the served often have things to do elsewhere after breakfast. If the big crowds could be enticed to remain all day, perhaps even after dark, that would truly recall downtown’s long-lost golden age. It’s something to work on.