“My District” gives NCSL members a chance to talk about life in the places they represent, from high-profile events to the fun facts only the locals know.
America’s greatest thoroughbred horse race, the Kentucky Derby, will be contested on Saturday at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., where it has been held continuously since 1875.
The famous racetrack and its neighborhood are represented in the Kentucky General Assembly by Senator Denise Harper Angel (D), near right, and Representative Nima Kulkarni (D).
The Derby is the opening leg of what The New York Times first described in 1930 as the Triple Crown, which also includes the Preakness Stakes, held at the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, and the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, N.Y.
From the mint juleps to the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” to the iconic twin spires of the Churchill Downs Clubhouse to the thousands of fans wearing their fanciest spring clothes, the Run for the Roses is packed with tradition, some of which has been captured on film.
Angel notes that the legendary thoroughbred Secretariat, the subject of a 2010 movie of the same name, began his road to Triple Crown victory by winning the Kentucky Derby in under two minutes. “I also like the underlying story of, Penny Chenery, who bred and owned Secretariat, fighting hard to make a name for herself in the late 1960s and early ’70s in a male-dominated profession,” Angel says.
Kulkarni, who is an immigration attorney, notes that many of the barn staff and others working behind the scenes at the track in what’s known as the Backside are immigrants. It is important, she says, to raise awareness of their unique circumstances, being so vital and close to, and yet so far removed from, the wealth and the glamour of Millionaire’s Row, one of the track’s exclusive dining rooms.
We connected with Angel and Kulkarni to ask what the big race and its surrounding events mean to their community.
What is the economic impact of the Kentucky Derby?
Kulkarni: Before the pandemic, the Derby was expected to bring in around $400 million in total economic impact, including hotels, restaurants, retailers, and many small and boutique businesses. But in any year, it raises the national and international profile of Kentucky and Louisville in particular. Its history and tradition are woven into the fabric of what brings Kentuckians together as Kentuckians, and is a strong cultural touchstone for us.
Angel: The Kentucky Derby is known to the rest of the world as “the two most exciting minutes in sports.” But in Louisville, it’s a two-week celebration that kicks off with the largest annual fireworks show in North America and ends with the iconic horse race.
Louisville Tourism estimates that this year’s direct economic impact will be around $200 million. That’s far lower than what it was in 2019, but we Louisvillians are excited to see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel and the continuation of our community traditions. Seating is limited, but it’s exciting that Churchill Downs is going to allow spectators.
Have you attended the Kentucky Derby? What was it like?
Kulkarni: I have attended the Derby on several occasions, and it is always an exhilarating experience. It is such a fun opportunity to dress your best—and really push the fashion envelope—and enjoy world-class people- and celebrity-watching. I’ve gone with friends and family, and it’s always a great day at the track, no matter the weather!
Angel: I have attended the Kentucky Derby many times. The Run for the Roses is always a thriller. Part Southern tradition, part spectacle, the Kentucky Derby hat parade is much of what makes the Derby one of the greatest people-watching events in the world. Many celebrities attend the Derby, so you usually will run into someone famous. I have seen many celebrities through the years.
The Louisville tradition until recently was to attend the Kentucky Oaks, the race for fillies that takes place on the Friday before the Derby. But as tickets to the Oaks have grown in price and popularity, Louisvillians have moved to attending the Thursday before Derby, which we have nicknamed “Thurby.”
What should every tourist visit in your district?
Kulkarni: Churchill Downs! I’m proud to represent District 40, which includes the iconic racetrack where the Derby is run. Besides touring the Backside of Churchill Downs, I also encourage visitors to try an early breakfast at Wagner’s Pharmacy, right across from Churchill Downs, which was named the best diner in Kentucky last year. You will find regulars, reporters, jockeys, industry insiders and many others who gather there for coffee or breakfast, surrounded by memorabilia and mementos. It’s a great place to take in the history of the track and the horseracing industry.
Angel: Besides Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Museum located at Churchill Downs, I would recommend visiting Michter’s Distillery. The Michter company originated in 1763. The distillery is in Shively, a section of Louisville with a legendary whiskey heritage. Michter’s has a custom-built, 32-inch-diameter, 46-foot-high copper column still with a distinctive copper pot still doubler. It is 11,000 pounds of copper. Michter’s master distiller, Pam Heilmann, is the first female master distiller to serve at a Kentucky Distillers’ Association distillery since prohibition. Experts consistently rate Michter’s bourbon among the best in the world.
What else should we know about your district?
Kulkarni: It is a diverse and unique district. In addition to Churchill Downs and the Backside, my district also includes the University of Louisville, a world-class research university and one of only two in Kentucky. I am fortunate to represent people from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences who all bring different perspectives to the issues that impact our district. We have young professionals and students living alongside seniors who have lived in the same house for half a century. They all have strong opinions, though! And I try to always represent their concerns to the best of my ability in Frankfort.
Angel: Louisville is full of neighborhoods and enclaves that have their own distinct style. Locals have long known that one of the most unique areas of town is the Highlands, which is where I live. Stretching along two main streets—Baxter Avenue and Bardstown Road—this part of town has been affectionately dubbed “Restaurant Row.”
The Highlands also is home to Bohemian-style shops, art vendors, clothing stores and furniture shops. The area is as eclectic as it is charming. You’ll find Victorian homes and turn-of-the-century architecture along quiet streets, just off bustling Bardstown Road. Everything is accessible by foot, so you can park your car and spend the day. Cherokee Park, which is in the Highlands, has a 2.4-mile scenic loop, a fenced dog park and even a bird sanctuary. It is one of the 50 most-visited parks in the United States.
Bruce Goldberg is a Denver-based freelancer. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.