It is Kentucky Derby Week here in the Bluegrass State. Pretty women are all prepping their hats. Freshly grown mint is being muddled, mixed with crushed iced, sugar-water, and bourbon. Country ham is being layered on delicate golden biscuits, and most people are preparing to lose anywhere from one to thousands of dollars in a span of two minutes. Life could not get any better.
This is the week to splurge on high-end bourbon, to eat fat-laden and calorie-filled Hot Browns, and to pretend you know all the words to “My Old Kentucky Home.” This is the week I always got the most homesick during the years I lived in Florida. On the first Saturday in May, there is no better place to be than Kentucky, rain or shine.
This is also the week that all Kentuckians pretend they know something about horses. Being from the mountain region of Kentucky, I was never around a lot of horses growing up, and the ones that were in Leslie County certainly were not thoroughbreds. They were more of your workhorse variety.
When I moved to the rolling hills and pastures of Central Kentucky, I quickly began to learn how to lose money at the track, but still not a lot about the horse itself. This was painfully apparent on a Derby Day a few years back.
Lasix is a common drug used in the racing industry. It prevents a horse’s lungs from hemorrhaging blood due to the stress of exercise. I am told this is a common “occupational” condition
affecting all types of race horses. However, if a horse is using Lasix, it is marked in the racing program with a (L) beside the horse’s name for full disclosure, similar to hot dogs being marked with (k) for Kosher. This apparently means something to the handicappers. The (L) not the (k).
I had no knowledge of any of this. The only Lasik I had heard of was the out-patient surgery that miraculously corrected one’s vision. I flipped through the racing program trying to decide
which horse to bet on before the race. I asked the group of friends I was with, “What does the (L) mean beside the names of some of the horses?”
“That means the horse has had Lasix,” says a helpful friend. Then I started noticing almost every horse in the race had an (L) beside its name. I flipped through the program to look at the rest of the day’s races. Most every horse racing that day had the (L) mark.
“Wow, all these horses have had Lasik? I had no idea horses were that near-sighted,” I announced to my friends. Everyone stared at me. Not noticing, I started wondering out loud, “Has anyone seen a near-sighted horse who was not lucky enough to have the Lasik procedure? Has anyone seen a horse with horse-sized sports goggles strapped on so it could see? Do they manufacture horse contact lenses, and how in the world would you put them in the horse’s eyes?”
Everyone still stared at me. Finally, one of my buddies put me out of my misery by calling me an idiot and explaining what Lasix in this situation really meant. “Are you sure you are even from Kentucky?” he ended his explanation as I hung my head in shame.
To answer him, years later, “Yes, I am 100% a Kentuckian.” And this week, everyone in the world can be, too. The Derby is a magical time, and even if you don’t know Lasik from Lasix, you can choose your favorite horse by any means and root for him or her to win “the greatest two minutes in sports.” If you need some help in picking a horse, I offer up this advice:
Keith’s Handicapping Tips for the Kentucky Derby:
- Pick a horse that has a name you like. I like any horse with the word Bird in its name, because it makes me laugh. I don’t know why, it just does.
- Closely look at the colors of the jockey silks. If you would not look good in that color, avoid that horse.
- Watch the NBC profiles of the horses and jockeys on Derby Day. Choose the one who makes you cry the loudest.
- Never, ever listen to anyone else’s handicapping tips.
And I leave you today, my friends, with the most important thing you need to know this weekend: how to make a mint julep. If you don’t have pewter or silver julep cups or official Derby julep cups from previous year’s, you will have to make do. After you drink your first, you won’t care what it is served in.
Kentucky Derby Mint Julep
(serves 8, unless you are one of my friends or myself, then serves 1)
2 cups of water
2 cups of white sugar
1 bundle of fresh mint
32 ounces Kentucky bourbon (I prefer Basil Hayden or Woodford Reserve, or old school with Makers Mark)
- Combine water, sugar, and 1/2 cup of chopped mint leaves in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil until sugar is dissolved. Allow syrup to cool. Strain to remove mint leaves.
- Place a few mints leaves into bottom of each glass and muddle (press really hard to bruise the mint and release its flavor). Then fill each glass with crushed ice.
- Pour four ounces of bourbon in each glass, and top off with sugar syrup.
- Garnish with fresh mint sprig, and a straw.
- When at all possible, please serve on a silver platter and use your best Southern drawl while both preparing and sipping.
Enjoy Kentucky Derby weekend! Y’all come back now!
**This is an excerpt from my book Bernadette Peters Hates Me