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How I got home from the Kentucky Derby: Tales of Louisville’s toughest task

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It’s not all pretty hats and winning tickets.

139th Kentucky Derby Photo by TJ Root/Getty Images

Getting home after the Kentucky Derby is hard. Even if you’ve managed to keep track of the people you started the day with (a task more difficult than actually making money at Churchill on Derby Day), and even if you have a suitable vehicle within walking distance, there’s a good chance that none of you are sober enough to get behind the wheel. Toss in the fact that cabs/ubers are few and far between, and that the Tarc will take you to Churchill Downs but it won’t take you home, and suddenly you have yourself a massive issue.

The result of all this is that year after year hoards of drunk people are left scrambling to find a way to either get home or get somewhere else to keep their evenings going. This leads to some stellar stories, stories which we asked you to submit earlier this week.

Here is the 2021 edition of “How I Got Home From Derby”:

The 5 a.m. Mohawks

It’s Derby day. After partying all day, my buddy- let’s call him “Carl”- ends up with a group of friends at Phoenix Hill Tavern. Hammered drunk, he gets separated from said friends and doesn’t have a ride. He’s also lost his phone. The house he’s staying in that night is a friend’s place on Delor Ave, off Eastern Pkwy, near the Denny’s.

“It’s not that far...” he thinks “I’ll just walk home.”

He immediately gets lost and wanders around the Highlands for a while. He gets tired and lays down in an alley near Bardstown Road. Sleeps for a bit and is woken up by some drunk chick and her friends pissing in the alley. Refreshed, he finds his bearings and makes it back to PHT, which is winding down.

Carl’s standing outside, trying to decide how to get home, when he takes out his can of Skoal and starts to pack it for a dip. Two guys, about his age (mid 20s), are standing next to him. One of them asks him for a dip. Turns out they’re from Chicago and are in town for the Derby. They have a vehicle, which is of keen interest to Carl. They offer to take him home. On the way, they decide to take a detour to PTs. They have a fine time at PTs until it shuts down. Finally, they head home to Delor Ave.

On the way, they’re talking and Carl mentions he’s a barber. Both guys from Chicago are excited about this and decide they’d like a haircut. They proceed into the house as Carl retrieves some clippers he had in his truck. Both lads from Chicago request mohawks. Carl obliges. Now the owner of the house, awakened by the racket in his kitchen, stumbles out of his bedroom at 5 a.m. to find Carl giving two strangers mohawks. The mohawks are finished, Carl and the homeowner bid the Chicago guys adieu, and they ride off into the sunrise, never to be seen or heard from again.

Three Brits in an Ice Cream Truck

In law school in 2004, I had a group of LLMs (a.k.a, foreign exchange students) visiting me in Louisville to get a feel for American life, so yes, I took them to the Derby. There was a group of about ten of us, with me being the only Derby veteran/Louisvillian. I handed each of them a notecard with my parents’ address and phone number in case they got lost. They questioned the logic behind this move...

Fast forward to the end of the day. We had folks from Germany, England, and Australia among the crew. Well 4 of them split off to cash in a ticket as we headed towards the exits...I pleaded with them not to...and said we would wait 20 minutes. 35 minutes later, and no sign of them and no calls/signal to our archaic phones, so we left.

About 3 hours later one of the guys from Australia showed up - his sneakers were torn up - he said he walked 2.5 hours from the track before finally getting a taxi. I asked what happened to the other three, and he said he did not know.

About 20 minutes later, as the sun is about to set, we hear carnival music from the front of our house. We come out from the backyard to find an ice cream truck and three Brits popping out of the side of the truck.

They bartered their way home by giving up a winning Derby ticket, and promising the ice cream man that we would buy some ice cream when they arrived at my parents’ house.

The Muddy Winning Tickets

My story starts with 5 people, probably snuck in enough liquor for 10. It was early to mid 1990s. Lots of rain. By end of 2nd or 3rd race, one of the 5 was passed out. Her husband carried her out over his shoulder and another left due to the rain. That left 2 of us with way too much bourbon.

Mud slides, lost my shirt, my great buddy Denny (RIP) and I at the left end of the day with me wearing a tarp and he a garbage bag covered in mud. As we walked out 3 ladies in clean pristine dresses and derby hats were so excited to take pictures standing with us covered in mud (ps if anyone could find those pictures it would make my day).

We walked for miles, no one would consider giving us a ride. Showed up at his house to an angry wife. One because we were so late from our long walk home but mostly because her big winning tickets that were in his pocket were essentially mud balls completely destroyed. Don’t think I have been forgiven yet!! Definitely one of the most fun and lasting memories ever, well that which I do remember.

Nothing Would Ever Be The Same

My memories start coming into focus sometime after the Derby (circa 1999) had concluded.

I remember standing outside Déjà vu, in search of the three ugly ones, when I realized I’d been separated from my platoon. I put my search on hold, gathered my thoughts, and concluded I must have been drugged by enemy combatants while in the infield. The only logical explanation for my current situation. I was fortunate to make it out alive… only missing a shoe.

Survival mode kicked in; my only mission was to reach the rendezvous point in the Highlands. As I tried to gain my bearings, I determined heading due east would get me to my destination. Unfortunately, the lingering effects from earlier events left me disoriented and I headed south instead.

Meandering through the post Derby wasteland, between Churchill and the Watterson, everything, and nothing, seemed familiar. Accepting I was lost, definitely not heading east, despair set in. Then, like an oasis in the desert, I saw it. The Watterson Expressway. Like explorers following the river home, if I could make it to the expressway, I could follow it back to Bardstown Road, and safety.

As I cut through backyards, inching closer to salvation, I felt a sinking sensation in my stomach. Rising from the earth, like the Great Wall of China, my biggest obstacle lay before me. A pinkish peach colored sound wall stood between me and freedom. I was determined to scale the beast.

I found a lower section and began my ascent. After numerous failed attempts a man appeared at the backdoor of the house whose yard I was in. He yelled, “Hey you drunk idiot, get the fuck outta my yard.” His words cut through me like a warm knife through butter. I then heard the unforgettable sound of a shotgun racking.

As he contemplated evacuating the shells from his shotgun, I contemplated evacuating my bowels.

I was able to scamper away with a shirt ripped to shreds and some formidable concrete abrasions on my chest and stomach. Defeated but not deterred, I continued my quest.

Eventually I found myself at the Holiday Inn (now Best Western) on Dixie Highway and formulated a plan C. Entering the lobby, I could feel the stares, and sensed people’s uneasiness as they gazed upon a young man who appeared to have just escaped an encounter with Freddy Krueger. I asked the front desk attendant if I could use the phone, she reluctantly obliged. I called a taxi, provided the extraction point coordinates, and they informed me the current wait time was three hours. Not ideal, but I felt my predicament was improving.

Hanging up the phone the lady behind the desk informed me I would need to wait outside… away from the front door. In desperate need of provisions, I spotted a store on the outskirts of the hotel parking lot. Procuring a Natural Light tall boy, a Gatorade, and a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos I was feeling anything but cool. Bruised, battered, and tattered I felt more like an order of Waffle House hash browns.

My rations secured, I settled in on the curb behind the hotel shuttle. Roughly an hour into my wait I felt the need to lay down. The thought of an overly firm vinyl seat, inside the shuttle, sounded slightly better than the earth and concrete of my current surroundings.

I pulled back the sliding door and stealthy entered. Finding an inconspicuous spot in the rear of the van I laid my head down to rest. I was awoken by the sound of the driver side door opening. A man entered and mumbled to himself about forgetting something. Leaving the door ajar he exited to retrieve the item from the hotel. Deciding I had pushed my luck to the limits, I exited the van, destined to wait my remaining time in purgatory on the curb.

After what seemed like an eternity, a lime green taxi pulled up. The driver spotted me, rolled down his window and asked my name. Finally, my anguish was nearly over!

As we pulled away, I peered back at the post Derby carnage and realized I would never be the same. …None of us would be.

The Tank of Gas Redemption

I got too drunk too early and upset my wife. So I decided to walk home to the highlands, leaving her with our visiting friends from STL.

It was raining pretty hard, and by the time I made it to Floyd St. I decided that walking wasn’t gonna work so I’d call a cab. Phone was dead. Stuck my thumb out and some dude pulled over and told me to hop in. I was super hype that a stranger would pick up a soaking wet idiot like me. Onward.

When I told him to pull into the gas station by my house so I could top him off, I realized my wife had my wallet in her clutch. He dropped me off at my house and apparently I told him that he could return at a later date for a tank of gas. I was hammered. I don’t remember saying it but I absolutely did because months later my wife called me at work asking why a strange man was at our door asking for a tank of gas.

Wherever you are, you deadlocked angel, I owe you a tank of gas.

The Bloody Sandals

Oaks: It’s 2001, I’m 19 and went to the infield with a bunch of friends. Great day until it’s time to leave. I’m known to be a little too social and talk to anybody I know for entirely too long. You could be a friend of a friend and I’m talking your head off. I’m hammered and have lost all 15 people I was with. My Nokia 3310 has no service so I made the decision to walk until I found somebody (similar situation happened the year before but I found someone right away on Taylor Blvd.).

I lived in Shively right behind Butler’s Football Field, so the plan was to walk in that direction and surely I’d see someone. I gave myself checkpoints like I was in MTV’s the Challenge final to get to along the way. I immediately get lost in the neighborhood by the track because every house looks exactly the same. I would stumble on a party or two, never thinking to use the phone, but definitely shotgunned or bonged a beer or two.

Finally got to Taylor Blvd and the First check point was Deja Vu, I’d lost my shirt so I couldn’t get in. I also saw no one. 2nd point, Early Bird Car Wash. No one. 3rd point, Angilo’s Pizza. No one but did get a steak sandwich. Next point, White Castle’s. No one. Did get a Big Red. Next stop, Shively Sporting Goods. No one.

Ended up walking all the way home. I wore a pair of the Nike Sandals that day and my feet were bleeding so bad I had to throw the sandals away. I was so tired and my feet hurt so bad I decided to break up with my girlfriend. That started a four year run where we would break up every Oaks/Derby weekend. She’s my wife now. Still have a couple of scars on my heels from the Sandals.

The Classic Blocked in Car Part I

The day after my college reunion, my wife kept telling me how drunk and ridiculous I’d gotten. I kept saying I wasn’t. She told me that at one point I had invited a couple to come for Derby and stay with us. I obviously had been shit faced.

I found Derby tickets and everything on the day of was fine until we left the track. A guy who got the last parking space in a yard didn’t show up, which left everyone else blocked in. We waited and waited until eventually we got invited into a guy’s RV for drinks. We continued to wait. We were lucky because enough cars were blocked in so that we had the manpower to pick up the schmuck’s car with a one-two-three-lift-heave over and over until we got it moved enough to drive out.

I felt like going back the next day to see if the car was still there but I was too hungover.

The Classic Blocked in Car Part II

We went to Derby one year and a guy was selling his tiny yard for parking, so we took him up on it. After it was over we returned and the guy had filled the yard. There was no way we could we get out out until people behind us arrived and moved their cars.

After knocking on the man’s door (no answer) and waiting nearly an hour, my friend just drove through the man’s chain link fence. Big Ford Bronco on huge mud tires. It dragged part of his fence out onto Taylor Blvd.

Lesson learned, don’t block people in.

The Dicey Impromptu Hired Ride

Years back I had some friends come down from Pittsburgh to experience their first Kentucky Derby. Of course getting to the derby is easy. Just bum a ride from a relative or catch a cab or Uber now days (although this wasn’t an option back then), but the trick is getting home shit housed. So after a day of drinking, losing money and a beautiful hot sun, that day it was time to truly tackle the biggest gamble of the day, “The Ride Home”

In true Derby fashion I myself had too many drinks and as we stumbled out of those sacred grounds onto Central, I for the life of me couldn’t figure out which way we should try our luck on finding a ride. So we flipped a coin and headed left

Stopping at a few of the local houses on the way for a cold one and a rib sammich. I glanced over and a dude cruising by in a broken down ass Ford ranger was screaming “rides! Who needs a ride!”

Flagged the guy down and For 25 bucks we all piled in the back of this dudes truck and he got us out of there.

It wasn’t until he took the first turn feeling like he was going damn near 30 that I realized this dude had been boozing it up himself and we all Might die. At one point we hit a bump and almost lost my buddies wife out the back (she was not amused). Dude got us to Denny’s on eastern and that was good enough!

It was the scariest 15 minute ride of my life but I played it off to my friends like it was the norm for getting home from the big race ... because it kinda is.