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Here they come, bobbing and twinkling, floating just above eye-level as if summoned on a breeze. Fairly-like, they glide over the terraces and up the VIP elevators, across the paddocks and around the Winners’ Circles, occasionally coming to rest at the polished rail, smartly overlooking a vista of immaculate turf and powdery dirt, where they seem to create a second, chattering layer of wildlife.I’m talking about the hats. At Churchill Downs, you can’t not talk about the hats. Purely from an outfit standpoint, races at this legendary track have always encouraged ladies to don fashion choices along the lines of “Royal Wedding Fridays.” Elaborate hats are de rigueur.
"Hats? These aren’t hats.”
Something flies past me in the shape of an unspooled treble clef. The next evokes the onyx shimmer of Dali’s mustache, while another, an exquisite model by Alexander Calder. I am duly fascinated.
Kristen Branscum, Commissioner for Kentucky Tourism, takes my arm like someone guiding me towards the exit, and then she angles her blonde hair in my direction for a better look. On the right flank rests a blue disc sprouting an elaborate curlicue, replete with stray feathers wafting above a hint of crinoline, perhaps crushed velvet.
“This isn’t a hat,” she repeats. “This is the Cup. We’re all about the fascinators.”
Which, if you’re not me, you’ll already recognize as those delightfully ornate, half-head accessories that women absolutely love to sport at both royal weddings and annual event-races at a place like Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. The 2018 Breeders Cup is an excellent reason for everyone to change up headgear, I’m told, at least for the majority of ladies in attendance. Since the Downs is not only the traditional home of the Kentucky Derby, the most beloved jewel in horseracing’s Triple Crown, it occasionally plays host to the Breeders Cup World Championship, a single-day, multi-million-dollar series of races for young thoroughbreds that also happens to be the likeliest spot for the public to catch a glimpse of next year’s Crown winners. The Cup is markedly different from the Kentucky Derby. This is an event for world-class horsemen, the real purveyors and weighers of horseflesh.
Ladies’ headgear is as much of a sensory experience at the races than either the horses or jockeys. Therefore, the near-unanimous preference for fascinators at today’s Breeders Cup lends the proceedings a welcome angle of repose. The atmosphere is restful, not excitable; witty, not garrulous. Soon I notice everyone—incuding myself—moving more slowly amid all the dainty Southern rococo.
A milliner hands me a fedora: rich and toffee-brown, banded by an electric blue and ivory that sparkles in the November sunlight. With my other hand I’m still holding the day’s inaugural drink, one of the track’s signatures, a blood-orange Old Fashioned made from a local spirit known as Evan Williams 23. Several furlongs away a four-part gospel choir has begun serenading the stands—100,000 spectators strong, already—with possibly the prettiest My Old Kentucky Home I’ve ever heard. A clutch of model-pretty twentysomething women floats past, heels clicking on cobblestones en route to the Winners’ Circle. Shamrock Rose, a 25-to-1 long shot, has just won a half-million-dollar prize. The flurry of excitement abates. Within seconds, I am vindicated that enjoyment at the Breeders Cup is incomplete without couture. Everyone near the paddock is taking note of a high red whimsical thing made from cambric that wouldn’t look out of place—not these days, anyway—on Meghan Markle.
“Mmm,” a husky voice says, approvingly. “Very Mary Poppins.”
The Breeders Cup rivals the pure, you-are-here enjoyment of San Fermin’s running of the bulls, or Mexico City’s Day of the Dead festivities, while serving as a superb excuse for visitors to discover the slowed-down charms of the Bluegrass State. The city of Louisville is an enchanting spot already, with its rustic, history-loving downtown and burgeoning scene for Southern foodies. I overheard locals say the same thing for days, spoken like an amused and proud parent: “The Cup is in town.” There are simply few sporting events like it, and few sites that rival the home of the pearl-white spires.
The gentlemanly sport of horseracing in Kentucky dates back to the years before it was actually a state. Churchill Downs opened its doors to a betting public in 1875. Three immaculate tracks, turf and dirt, spread over a palatial 150 acres. Tradition is not merely spoken of here, but palpable, even with all the upgrades required of a state-of-the-art sporting facility. It is somewhat fitting, perhaps, that over the decades Churchill Downs developed its capacious interior to reflect, like some kind of grand opera house, an array of exclusive viewing options. Visitors choose among areas like the Skye Terrace, a fully-stocked ballroom with tiered balcony viewing and buffets; the Jockey Club Suites, offering panoramic views in sheltered seats with their own wait staff and betting machines; and of course the famed Millionaires Row, which used to be the spot where owners hobnobbed with foreign investors while nervously awaiting a prize filly’s debut. Now that option merely places (that is, comes in second) to the ultimate luxe option. This requires a little legwork, resulting in a personalized invitation from Churchill Downs, the prime seating and viewing spot called The Mansion.
The Mansion debuted in 2014 and has since become the track’s most exclusive experience, as premium as a Four Seasons lounge airlifted onto the 6th floor and poised to directly overlook the finish line. One views the races in the style of monarchs at jousts. (The price ticket is what we might call “modest-extravagant.”) Mostly, the Mansion delights in its own amenities: a private elevator, a gargantuan wet bar with expert mixologists, personal concierges, exclusive cages with your own betting consultants, should you require more consultation or data than people like me, who tend to bet impulsively and according to which horse has the oddest, least grammatical name. Not to mention at least a half-dozen of the world’s most famous chefs annually make their way to Louisville to curate the Breeders Cup menus. Everyone above ground-level manages to enjoy some variation on exquisite dining, but the Mansion snags the whales. On a good-sized lag between the 7th and 8th races, celebrity chef Masaharu Morimoto appeared to swells of applause and spent the interim furiously carving up a gargantuan, 243-pound Pacific Bluefin tuna, to the delight of Instagrammers in attendance. I drank a Maker’s Mark Breeze in half-stunned edification. It wasn’t yet 2:00 pm. I was reminded, for the umpteenth time, that The Breeders Cup is something of an endurance test. The fascinators were telling me, in their slow-bobbing way, to take my time.
“Marathon,” a barman told me, “not a sprint.”
After noshing on a fresh plate of Morimoto’s handmade sushi, I stopped to ask myself whether marathons are really just a series of sprints.
I recommend measuring sprints with a cocktail in hand. For the remainder of the afternoon—between bouts of cheering Catholic Boy or Stormy Liberal to the finish line and managing, to my sincere delight, to break even—I partook of the local spirit, which no visitor to the area can long go without. Here is a short list of the day’s bourbania: bourbon spritzers, bourbon Old-Fashioneds, bourbon Blueberry Mashes, rye bourbon Manhattans enjoyed between trim slices of bourbon-pecan pie, not to mention cuts of bourbon chicken with bourbon waffles, bourbon brisket, bourbon steaks, bourbon burgers, bourbon-infused russet potatoes gratin, bourbon root vegetables, bourbon crab legs, bourbon green salads, and to wash everything down, a shot of bourbon. Autumnal atmospheres, I believe, deepen with a tumbler of the Old Faithful. Certainly Bourbon’s color—a deep, sun-streaked caramel—captures most everything people love about the season in a single sippable spirit, one that evokes the flush of earth-tones as well as the exquisite calm that accompanies a cozy, well-made fire. I learned that it must be the proper drink for some amiable man in a fedora, chatting up ladies in fascinators, who seem to have all the time in the world. “Never,” a local expert reminded me at some point, “judge a bourbon ‘til the third sip.”
Such royal patience seems all of a piece, at the Breeders Cup.
A bit before the 11th race of the afternoon, the final Classic, I unhurriedly made my way out of the Mansion and down to the track’s edge so that I might catch the last team thundering past. I made it just in time. A mother (one of the owners, as it turned out) held a 16-month old boy clad in the cutest baby fedora and seersucker pants. The mother was happy to bounce the boy gently even as her horse, it must be said, failed to win, place, or show.
“Well!” she laughed, beaming. “At least we’re not last!”
Her toddler met my gaze with a pair of enormous blue eyes. With ceremony, he removed his little fedora, wanting to pass it over. I took it, examined it, and handed it back. He did the same. This went on for some time.
Several young women, flush from the final race, began unpinning their fascinators and smoothing the feathers, patting them like fillies who’d performed admirably for the marathon. These were grace notes to my afternoon, and I made a promise to return to Louisville for the next Cup. Of course, the event will take its leave from Churchill Downs for the next few years, at least, but no matter. I’d spent a whole day taking sips of Southern charm and relearning the art of anticipation. Welcome to Louisville. Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?