Soggy Kentucky Derby day doesn’t dampen party for some fans

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Danielle Bunker’s flowery hat dropped and rain dripped from her pink poncho as she settled into the waterlogged Churchill Downs infield, but she wasn’t going to let the gloomy weather dampen her Kentucky Derby bachelorette party.

“It’s all in the experience,” Bunker, 28, said Saturday as she munched on a pretzel and prepared for a daylong party with nine friends who set up lawn chairs near the giant video board. “We’re bummed but we’re from Ohio, so we’re used to it. We’ll make do.”

Steady rain turned part of the sprawling infield into a muddy pit hours before the Derby. But some hardy fans staked out spots to watch what for some is a first-time experience and for many is a yearly pilgrimage to the world’s most famous horse race.

Ponchos and rain boots were in fashion on a day usually devoted to sundresses, fancy suits and people-watching between horse races. Rain was predicted to end hours before the Derby went off in the early evening. The last Derby run on a sloppy track was 2013 when Orb splashed home in front.

Skies were clearing by early afternoon on Saturday.

While the well-heeled and those with the right connections stayed dry under cover, fans on the infield endured a wet, cold morning.

Bobby McGohon from nearby Lexington, attending his 33rd straight Derby, constructed a makeshift tent with lawn chairs and tarps to stay dry. Another tarp served as a floor to keep their feet dry.

“We’ve got it down,” he said. “We’ve been preparing for this. We’ve got everything we need.”

Erin Smith and Melissa Logan made a run for cover on the infield as the rain poured.

“This is totally cramping my style,” said Logan, a 37-year-old from Colorado, a coat zipped up over the dress she bought new for her first Derby.

They made their own fascinators in blue and yellow, piled high with feathers and price tags exceeding $100.

Smith lives in Louisville and was attending the Derby for the seventh time. “This is the absolute worst one,” she moaned over the rain. “Usually I worry whether I brought enough sunscreen. Today, I bought a $15 poncho.”

Many fans wore multiple layers of clothes to contend with the cold, damp conditions. Kelly Stariha, a Kentucky native, has a three-footwear strategy for braving the infield during dreary Derbies that she shared with her two friends visiting from Michigan. Each woman wore rainboots, then tucked a pair of heels and a pair of flip flops in their purse.

“So when we want to feel posh, we can leave the galoshes here,” she said from their muddy camp along the fence at the backstretch. “We wear flips through the mud to the grandstand, then change into heels and pretend for a while.”

Sherry Vigeant drove from Massachusetts so her daughter, Sophie, could celebrate her 14th birthday at the Derby. Mom and daughter sported new outfits and hats, but a last-minute purchase at Wal-Mart was their most practical one as they prepared for a wet day in the grandstand.

“Our 99-cent ponchos are probably the most important thing that we have here,” Sherry Vigeant said.

Tyler Lavoie, a 23-year-old soldier from nearby Fort Knox, draped a plastic poncho over his multicolored suit. He decided to attend his first Derby before shipping out for his next Army assignment in Alaska later in the month.

“It kind of sucks,” he said of the foul weather. “But we’re still going to bet, still going to drink. So we’ll be fine.”

Lavoie said he’s used to being out in tough weather conditions as a soldier, but planned to find cover at the track.

“We’ve been in the rain a lot,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean we like to be.”

The rain inspired Smith and Logan to think up a moneymaking strategy, in case it rains again for their next Derby. The friends bought their ponchos for less than a dollar at Wal-Mart.

“They’re selling them for $15 here,” Smith said. “Forget betting. That’s how to make some money.”