Kentucky Oaks: The Backside

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Welcome to Part One of our recent trip to Kentucky {don’t worry, there are only two…}!  You may not know this, but my dad’s side of the family is Kentucky born and bred, so I’ve got plenty of bluegrass blood flowing in my veins.  I spent many a Christmas and summer visiting family in Louisville and Lexington growing up, but I don’t get back there too often these days.  So beyond the Derby, I was really excited to get to visit and spend time with my family.

Friday morning, Tyler and I hit the interstate by o’dark thirty with the car packed and my hat strapped to its personal trailer.  It was a typical Grassmeyer road trip, complete with sports talk radio, me being bored, some car dancing to cure my boredom, and of course…

05 06 11_5628Chick Fil A.

The trip was quick and easy.  We watched the sun rise through Maryland, beautiful mountains through West Virginia, and before we knew it, we were pulling into the Griffin Gate Marriott in Lexington, KY.

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No, we weren’t confused—the Derby takes place in Louisville, another 70 miles west, but our group was staying in Lexington, likely for cheaper rates.  We only stayed long enough to check in, drop off our bags, and change clothes before we headed west to meet my family for the Kentucky Oaks—the annual horse race that takes place the day before the Derby.

Now, going into this weekend, I knew as little as one can know about racing beyond the fact that horses run in circles and someone wins.  I didn’t know that there was a race the day before just as fancy as the Derby.  I didn’t know that fillies raced on Friday and the whatever the word for males horses is raced on Saturday.  I didn’t know the horses were all three years old.  I didn’t know what betting was like or the name of a single jockey.  So I made sure that everyone spoke to me like a foreigner— veeeery slooowly and in very simple terms.

Learning Curve

My learning curve looked something like this…

So anyway, Friday we headed to Churchill Downs to watch the Oaks.  Except today, we weren’t in the grandstands.  We were on the Backside.  The Backside is opposite of the grandstands {not the infield}, where all of the stables are, and only horse owners have access to.  Owning shares of horses, my aunt, uncles, and cousin are all owners, so they had a prime spot set up right on the rail.

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I had no idea what to expect, but it turned out to be just like tailgating for a football game {“Except there’s more alcohol here,” explained my uncle}.  It was casual and fun—everyone hanging out in tents with grills and camping chairs and beer.  And if you can’t tell from the pictures, the weather. was. perfect.

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Races run throughout the day, one about every 30 minutes, so everyone just hangs out eating, drinking, socializing, and placing bets until about five minutes before the race.  Then we’d all line the rail and watch the horses and owners come out as they walked to the start.

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The starting gates are moved around the track with each race, so eventually one of the last races started right in front of us.  It was very cool.

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And then they were off!

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Folks in the grandstands get just as fancy for the Oaks as they do for the Derby.  But not us!

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I don’t get to see this side of the family much outside of the occasional wedding, so it was very, very special for me to get to hang out with my uncles for the day.  I spent the first two hours hiding my teary eyes behind sunglasses while relishing stories from Uncle Rob, hugs from Uncle Marty {who looks so much like my dad it’s eery}, chit chat with my Aunt Vickie, and hang out my cousin Kyle and his new wife Kat.  They probably couldn’t tell how much fun I was having, but I had a blast.  It was so great to spend the day amongst the Ways; I only wished my dad were there too for my first experience at the track.

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If I weren’t emotional enough already, we stopped at the cemetery in Shelbyville where the Ways and Martins of my family are all buried.  I remember stopping here with my dad as a kid, but I hadn’t returned since and I really wanted to stop and pay my respects.  I had my own little “Who Do You Think Are?” moment as Tyler and I tracked down the plots of my family members spread throughout the cemetery.  We found my grandmother Lois, who passed away before I was born; Jessie, the woman I knew as my grandmother; my Aunt Kathryn, my namesake; my great grandparents and a few uncles.  We also found my Pop Way, my grandpa who passed away in 2007.  It was a good thing I wasn’t really on “Who Do You Think You Are?” because the emotion of seeing his name etched in stone hit me like a ton of bricks and I went into the ugly cry.

We didn’t see Pop Way as much as my Atlanta family growing up, but he was such a character and I always knew how much he loved us despite his gruff manner.  We love to laugh and tell Pop Way stories when we’re all together, like the time he kept filling bags of ice in the freezer, thinking the automatic icemaker was going to overflow.  He called up all of his kids and asked if anyone needed any ice because he had “14 God d*amn bags of ice” in his freezer. “The God d**mn freezer won’t stop makin ice!!”

Despite his fixed income, he faithfully mailed me a check every month for the four years I was in college.  Each check had a slip of paper included with a brief sentence or two commenting on the weather, his dog, or his garden tomatoes—I still have a small pile that I saved tucked away somewhere.  And in 24 years, I’m not sure he ever spelled my name right—each check came with various spellings of Kathryn, but I always knew how much he loved me.  Seeing his name in stone for the first time just reminded me how long it’s been since I’ve seen him, so I spent a few minutes alone at his grave remembering him, crying and cleaning up the weeds around it.  I was surprised how suddenly and heavily my emotions came, but I’m so glad I was able to spend that time there.  Just when I think my family couldn’t mean more to me, moments like these make my roots feel even deeper…

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By the time we left the cemetery, I was exhausted from the lack of sleep, too much fun, and heavy emotions so we did what any good Kentuckian does for sustenance…

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We went to White Castle!

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I inhaled these in honor of my dad and in memory of my Pop Way, and then passed out to rest up for the big day ahead of us.


Wow—not expecting that much seriousness from the Kentucky Oaks post, huh?  Me neither.  But up next….Our day at the Derby! 

{I promise, there was no crying.}

Stay tuned.

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