The first piece of musical theater I ever listened to was “My Fair Lady.” My mother played it endlessly from the time I was old enough to be conscious of anything, and as a result it was, as the song that concludes the show said, “second nature to me.”
Of course, to me, all the songs are great. But one of my favorite songs and scenes from the play is “Ascot Opening Day,” in which all of London’s high society assembles at the Royal Ascot horse track for the first race of the season. The song is a very stately gavotte (for those familiar with such dances) that depicts the British high rollers and swells who attend, dressed to the nines with evening suits, gowns and sophisticated millinery.
This has become de rigueur at most elegant horse races around the world, including East Coast tracks such as Belmont, Pimlico and Saratoga (I remember attending the Travers Stakes on a 99-degree August Saturday and seeing those poor people in the long gowns and fascinators looking as if they were about to die).
Naturally, the assemblage of sophisticates and swells who venture out to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May do it up right, even if the racing surface is more like a river than a track — which was the case Saturday.
And since we all try to sneak in a little taste of the high life whenever we can, it is now equally de rigueur to emulate the impeccably dressed lords and ladies at Kentucky Derby watch parties such as the one I went to Saturday at the Boston Yacht Club in Marblehead.
This was one of the Marblehead Arts Association’s primary fundraisers. For the very reasonable price of a ticket, one could join in — provided one had on a reasonable facsimile of Kentucky Derby finery (judge for yourselves whether my wife, Linda, and I qualified). Since it was at the yacht club — which is obviously not a sanctioned off-track betting site — we couldn’t put our mortgages down on our favorite horse (in retrospect, that was probably just as well), but we could bet on the winner by way of purchasing raffle tickets. All for a great cause.
They say that marriage opens up endless possibilities for mystery and surprises. Over the course of our 41-plus years of marriage, Linda and I came to devote every Saturday evening on the first weekend of May to watching the Derby. It’s been must-see TV for as long as I can remember.
This morphed into a mutual interest in horse-watching (if not necessarily gambling) that has taken us to Suffolk Downs a few times, and — this past Saturday — to the BYC. If you can’t make it to Louisville, you make Louisville come to you. Linda even sent away for a fascinator, which, thankfully, arrived on time.
Me? I had all kinds of visions about what I should look like. Should I go the Rob Gronkowski route, with a ridiculously patterned plaid suit and a pork pie hat? No. My son, who was barely able to contain his contempt at all this anyway, would have never spoken to me again.
I wanted to wear some bright green pants, or something like that, to distinguish myself. But when I went to my go-to clothing store, guess what I couldn’t find. Yup. Bright green pants.
I settled on tan khakis, a multi-patterned button-down shirt, bright green tie, a blue blazer, and a big ol’ hat. It was OK, but when you consider that at least one person was dressed as if he was going to the first-ever Kentucky Derby (which was in 1875), complete with tails and top hat, I came up somewhat short in my eyes.
One of my fears in life is being the only one who ends up wearing a costume at what is supposed to be a masquerade party. I had the same fear here. But when I got to the BYC, I was relieved to see everyone else wearing big, floppy hats and outlandishly coordinated clothes. There were a couple of women whose hats were so big that one false move, or a moderate gust of wind, could have toppled them over. We were right at home.
I’d been warned by a colleague that mint juleps were nasty. I’m happy to say they weren’t at all. I drank one with good ol’ Kentucky bourbon and another with rum. Both went down very smoothly.
Now let’s talk about the race. The poor horses looked as if they were running through the Chelsea Creek. When it was over, Maximum Security had sloshed to victory. Or so we thought.
Two riders lodged objections, claiming that the erstwhile victorious horse had veered out of his path just enough to impede them. The stewards who examined the objection agreed, disqualifying Maximum Security and awarding the victory to Country House.
The winner at the BYC got a raffle prize (it’s not known whether he had to give it back), but at least none of us there were seeing anything like the $2,500 that flew out a friend of mine’s window thanks to the decision. In our case, it was but a small part of an otherwise fun afternoon that, were it not for having been told of this by MAA CEO Patti DiCarlo Baker while writing a story about her, we never would have experienced.
So thanks, Patti. Next year I’ll go shopping earlier and get more gaudy pants!