With the Kentucky Derby coming up, this Kentucky Outsider decided to give our fellow Outsiders an insider’s look at the big day. There is a lot going on in the city of Louisville around this time of year and the weekend festivities are taken very seriously. Public school will be let out on Friday for the Oaks race. The University of Louisville usually tries to do certain end-of-the-school-year festivities, like final exams before Derby weekend, and things like graduation the week after, to avoid conflict and parking crises.
So, to get a feel for what is actually going on in the city, I headed to the best place to hear from locals. The barbershop. My own brother just so happens to work at Derby City Chop Shop in the Highlands neighborhood of the city. It is the perfect place to drop an ear and take in some stories about Derby, tips about what to do, and see what the locals themselves are up to when the most exciting two minutes in sports gets here.
The Derby City Chop Shop
Walking in, it’s a fun, welcoming, and interesting shop. Awards hang on the walls next to art such as old concert flyers, movie posters, barber memorabilia, and of course, Muhammad Ali. A large picture hangs of the legendary boxer, staring into a mirror and smiling at himself. Probably thinking, “I’m too pretty.” There are t-shirts and hats for sale, sporting the name of the shop. And, of course, each chair has a little personal touch behind it.
As I look around at the chattering clients and barbers, my brother is noticeably absent due to a stomach bug of some kind. But, the chairs are classic and comfy. The barbers are all heavily tattooed, but inviting and professional. It’s everything that you’d want in a newer shop, but with a lot of those old-school barbershop vibes.
This writer doesn’t get to the barbershop much, my last haircut was somewhere in February 2020. But, there’s something about walking into a place and hearing all of the conversations, vibing to the music playing in the background, and folks walking in and out every few minutes. The barbers that have been around for a few years noted that Derby week is one of the busiest times of the year. Wednesday and Thursday of Derby week are when they hit their peak this time of year.
So, what are the folks around here doing for the Kentucky Derby? The answers might surprise you. Locals tend to spend the weekend a lot differently than those visiting. Louisvillians are typically in one of two camps. All-in down in the infield, or watching from the supposed safety of a friend’s party. There are some that dress to the nines, large hats, and take in the race from the stands. But, what’s the fun in that when you can go to Bill’s and have some cheap beer for a cheap, non-Derby price?
How Are the Locals Spending the Kentucky Derby?
Now, I would never claim to be from Louisville or claim to be the end all be all of the city, but I know some things. My parents are both from Louisville, and we’ve done the Derby thing before. At home, and other places. I know what my idea of a Kentucky Derby weekend is… A family friend’s annual party is where I learned how to play dice. You’d be surprised how much money you can make betting with quarters.
But what about the people actually living in the city? What are they up to this time of year?
Born and Raised Around Derby
I spoke with one of the barbers, Joey, and the 38-year-old talked about his upbringing. He was born just outside of Louisville and Jefferson County, over in Oldham County. From there, his family moved to the city where he grew up in various neighborhoods. His Kentucky Derby traditions have mostly lived on. From his grandpa’s days at the horse track, betting in the 1960s and 70s, to family get-togethers today. Like a “second Easter” he put it.
“It was just like another big holiday for us,” Joey explained. “And I feel like that’s kinda citywide at least, that a lot of people would take it as another holiday. Even my daughter is out of school the day before, in observance of a horse race.”
While he would usually be getting together with family for the weekend for hat draws, prize pools, good food and good company, Joey has other plans for 2022. He and his wife are taking their daughter to Disney World.
While he was in action on the chair, I also spoke with Brandon. The barber is from Elizabethtown, Kentucky. West of Louisville. However, the barber has been in the city for some time now. We spoke while he was getting an aspiring lawyer and third-year law school student named Wood, looking sharp, clean and ready to go.
“Not growing up in Louisville, I remember we would have a Derby get together at my uncle’s house or whatever and watch the races. I think it spilled over into my adult life, but we do the same thing. When we get together, hat draw for the Derby race. Drink and kinda, treat it like a holiday.”
Brandon wasn’t sure if he had ever actually been to the Kentucky Derby, but he did remember going once when he was a younger man. Again, you either go all the way in, or you hang back at the house and party it up. It’s the best way to celebrate.
The Law Student
Wood, from Princeton, Kentucky, didn’t grow up with the Derby really in his mind. For those that don’t live within the greater Louisville area, the Kentucky Derby might not even register on their radar. Wood has been impressed with the last two years of Derby, and this year things should be in full force. So, the law student won’t miss out on a genuine experience before graduation.
“Louisville has been a pretty hard city to get acclimated to as an outsider, but on Derby week, everybody is pretty welcoming,” he explained. “It’s definitely a different environment, and you see the reason why people travel from all over the world to come see it.”
So, there you have it. While the city of Louisville braces for the biggest day of the entire year, a lot of people aren’t looking forward to the hats and the drinks. They want to get with family and friends, play games, drink beer, and yell at their televisions as they lose their 4th bet of the day. It’s how Kentuckians spend the Kentucky Derby.
Thanks again to Derby City Chop Shop for letting me hang out, listen, talk, and write this up.