I’m not a competitive gambler, but I am pretty big on ritual and tradition. One of my favorites is an annual Derby Day party I have attended for the past 12 or so years. It didn’t happen in 2013 because Carolyn, the hostess and bookie, had to work, but she revived it this year … much to the delight of her regulars.
There is never a shortage of things to do around Derby. On the day of the big race, I generally receive two or three other party invites, plus the occasional opportunity to go to the track. I turn them all down in favor of this one get-together. As far as I am concerned, it is THE thing to do on Derby.
I met Carolyn in 1998, when I started working at Business First. She was my managing editor. It didn’t take too long for us to become good friends, and she extended the invitation to her Derby soiree.
Carolyn is one of my favorite people ever, to this day. We’ve had a lot fun together, shared struggles and setbacks, and once she gave me the Heimlich maneuver right in the middle of a lunch meeting at O’Charley’s in front of the entire news staff when I choked on a hunk of my French dip sandwich. (Never ate one of those damn things again, I’m here to tell ya.) When I left the newspaper in 2007, her party helped me stay connected to part of my Business First family, and I am so grateful for that.
Yep, Carolyn is one of mah gurls.
When the party got started, our kids were young. My son, Ethan, must have been about 8 years old, and her two daughters are two years removed on either side of him. A big reason I enjoyed it back in the day was that Carolyn’s shindig was a family affair, with the kids running around getting dirty, while the adults got sauced, socialized and lost money. A fabulous time all around.
She and her husband, Mike, have a core group of friends who show up at various points during the action, all of them awesome people whom I have been privileged to get to know better each year. I always look forward to seeing some of the more entertaining characters and their antics. It’s a salty and sweet bunch, for sure.
Things have changed over the years. Kids grew up. Carolyn and Mike moved to a new house. And a few of us stopped drinking, including me. But it is still the only place I want to be on Derby Day.
I think it appeals to me so much because by now, it is a relaxed and comfortable ritual. I always make my famous broccoli casserole because Carolyn wouldn’t let me in the door without it. I know nearly everyone who shows up, though the first Saturday in May might be the only time I see them. I love hearing what everyone has been up to, seeing their families expand before my eyes and gossiping a little about other people we have in common.
I know squat about horse racing, but Carolyn makes betting fun and easy. She takes track bets with bookie odds, and nearly everyone gets in on the action. I like to sit next to her at the glass table on her covered porch in front of the big TV and watch her work her magic. I usually pick jockeys and horse names I like, and hope for the best. It’s fun to win, but it’s not about the money. I won on two races but lost it all on the Derby, for a total of less than $40.
Sometimes, when the races are over and the crowd thins, a few of us stick around to play dime-and-quarter poker. (This is where being one of the only sober people in the room often works to my advantage.) It didn’t happen this time, but we’ve talked about setting up a poker night in the near future.
I don’t remember what I did with myself last year when I didn’t have Carolyn’s party to attend. I know I had other invitations, but I didn’t accept any of them. I don’t think I even watched the races at all. It just wasn’t the same. Partygoers this year were very vocal in saying how glad they were that the tradition has returned. It was nice to hear that I wasn’t the only one who felt a void.
This longstanding tradition makes Derby feel special to me in ways that not even a trip to the track can. Truth be told, I think my love for this party stems from one core realization — I’m always a winner when I’m among friends.
Here’s to Derby 2015!
About Amy Higgs
A former newspaper columnist, Amy takes her random, slice-of-life stories to the web. After 10 years, she's still just saying.