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The Kentucky Derby infield is nothing like it used to be

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Plus, seersucker suits and summer dresses are more likely to be seen in the Kentucky Derby Infield than tank and tube tops. More straw hats and fascinators than ball caps and visors.

Sure, there will be plenty of drunk people there — as drunk as you can get for $22 mint juleps. And on rainy days you’ll still have some yahoos doing belly slides in the mud.

But the infield at Churchill Downs has changed in a big way.

It could be the $80 to $130 price tag people paid to get in this year. It could be the more expensive bleachers that Churchill Downs installed in the section of the infield next to the grandstand.

It could be the fact that it’s the same crowd that came when I was in my 20s and got roasted and burned while dodging two-liter bottles of soda during what we called the third turn. (Purists will tell you that there are only two turns at Churchill Downs, but some of us know that the wildest parties happened on the third turn.)

When I say it’s the same crowd, I’m not saying the infield is full of 20-year-olds.

No no no.

They are exactly the same people who were in the backcountry 35 or 40 years ago. They’re just gray and bald and, well, old. (That’s not a criticism. I’m old too.)

At least that was the one who showed up early and camped in the grass.

These days it looks less like Woodstock and more like summer stock.

You get the picture.

It’s more refined than it was exactly 50 years ago when — at the height of the streaking craze and two weeks before Ray Stevens topped the Hot 100 chart with “The Streak” — a reveler in the field climbed the track’s flagpole and took off his pants.

Another sprinted – naked as a jaybird – in front of the backboard of the track.

Archness, archness.

The great Red Smith described the scene as follows:

“They were mostly college-age kids, mostly dressed in skin colors and packed so tightly together that the infield looked like a mass in jelly, an expanse of sunburned fur. There was so much skin showing that it was difficult to make out streakers, although some were present.

Race fans were allowed into the infield during the very first Kentucky Derby in 1875, said Darren Rogers, the track’s spokesman.

However, the drunken debauchery did not begin until much later.

For years, motorcycle clubs partied all night on Central Avenue and rolled straight onto the infield as soon as the gates opened on Derby morning, setting the tone for quite a wild party in the infield.

People were allowed to bring their own liquor into the backcountry until 1968, when Churchill Downs officials banned this.

That really didn’t stop the drinking.

When Hunter Thompson wrote his seminal piece “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” for Scanlan two years later, he wrote of the infield:

“Total chaos, no way to see the race, not even the track… no one cares. Big lines on the outside bets, then stand back to watch the winning numbers flash on the big board, like a giant bingo game. …

“Thousands of teenagers, a group singing ‘Let the Sun Shine In’, ten soldiers guarding the American flag, and a huge fat drunk in a blue football jersey (No. 80) spinning around with a liter of beer in his hand.

‘No drinks are sold out here, too dangerous… no toilets either. Muscle Beach… Woodstock… lots of cops with riot sticks, but no sign of riot. Far across the track, the clubhouse looks like a postcard from the Kentucky Derby.”

For the past 56 years, visitors to the infield have played a cat-and-mouse game, trying to smuggle bottles, flasks and other containers full of liquor into the infield.

I’ve heard stories of people hollowing out baguettes and stuffing bottles of booze into them and even trying to stuff a pony keg of beer under a wheelchair. That could be apocryphal.

Rogers said people even tried to bury liquor bottles in the infield months before the Derby, with plans to dig them up on Derby Day.

The first time I ever went to Derby’s infield was sometime around 1986, back when the whole reason for going there was to get drunk. Really drunk. Really, really drunk.

Without paying for a cannon bone and a heel bone.

In those days you could bring coolers full of whatever you could get past the guards.

We showed up with ice chests full of 46-ounce cans of Hi-C or Hawaiian Punch, an assortment of fruit, and a few paring knives.

Others involved in our conspiracy would bring the drink – Everclear or more likely a cheaper brand of pure grain alcohol.

Sometimes we would put the liquor in ziplock bags and tape them to our torsos, which became painful for the hairier of our friends when it came time to make our jungle juice.

Other years, when we had planned better, we used large hypodermic needles and syringes to remove the water from 1.5-liter bottles of Poland Springs water and replace it with the 190-proof drink.

That was back when we would leaf through The Courier Journal the morning after the Derby looking for the story about the number of arrests in Derby.

In 1993, there were 57. That was after people started throwing two-liter bottles of soda, 16-ounce cans of fruit juice and oranges. It wasn’t us. I promise.

“It was like Iraq for a while,” Louisville police Lt. Walt Tangel told the newspaper.

For years, men stood outside the women’s restroom and yelled at them to show their breasts. A story from forty years ago traced that tradition to 1979, when a mother with an eight-month-old child strapped to her back bared her bosom for dollar bills.

Now there is a ‘lactation station’ in the infield where new mothers can breastfeed or pump in privacy.

Churchill Downs even hired a consultant in 1984 to try to determine how to clean up the infield. That year, large flower pots were removed from the circuit that, according to the newspaper, ‘had served as a stage for lurid behavior in recent years’.

At the time, Al Schem, Churchill’s director of security, thought the cost of infield drinks would also help calm the crowd.

“With the prices our caterer charges for beer and mint juleps, there’s no way people can get that drunk,” he said.

They got just as drunk.

Two rural residents were accused of sexual assault that year when they tried to remove women’s clothing. One was charged with disorderly conduct for biting 15 women in the butts, and two women were accused of exposing themselves near the toilet.

The infield still has its moments.

There is occasional nudity and a lot of drunkenness, but nothing like before.

Churchill first banned coolers in the infield after the September 11 attacks. They allowed them back in starting in 2009, but then banned them again after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

That has made it harder to sneak booze onto the infield, but not impossible, Rogers said.

“I have an 18-year-old son,” he said. “I know.”

Rogers said the changes in the infield over the past four decades have been largely organic.

“I think it’s a by-product of the overall growth of the Derby itself,” he said. “The Derby has absolutely skyrocketed in the last 15 years.”

Some would argue that it has become more controlled and corporate.

But it’s undoubtedly safer than it used to be, if not a little less colorful.

Joseph Gerth can be reached at 502-582-4702 or by email at [email protected].