Hats, mud, mint juleps rule at Derby


Koepnick attended his 32nd straight /*Kentucky Derby*/ on Saturday, making the annual trip from Grand Rapids, Mich., with his girlfriend. He estimated they'll spend about $500 on gas, lodging, tickets, wagers, food and drinks, all in the name of the Run for the Roses.

He said his tax-rebate check from the government was spent even before he received it. But he said it was worth every penny, calling the Derby a must-see event that's "a piece of Americana."

"We're going to stimulize the Derby," he said.

The rebates, which are expected to reach 130 million households, range up to $600 for individuals and $1,200 for married couples, plus $300 per child for eligible parents.

Among the throngs of resplendent Derby hats, Koepnick's was especially eye-catching. Koepnick, who calls himself "The Hat Man," was wearing a decorated hard hat featuring two motorized horses that were rotating.

The crowds thronged to the /*Churchill Downs*/ infield despite heavy rains Friday and early Saturday that turned spots into mire. The morning rain ended, giving way to a mix of white clouds and blue sky.

Cynthia Myers, of Cincinnati, was sipping a mint julep by midmorning on the edge of the third turn in the infield, her beige pants trickled with mud spots and her shoes filthy. She brought an extra pair of shoes, hoping to swap them if conditions improved.

"It's never too early for a drink at the Derby," said Myers, who was with her husband, Burt, and a group of friends. "The party starts well before the race."

Harry Thomas, also from Cincinnati, was among fans waiting for the infield mudders to show.

"Hopefully a mud fight will bust out right here," said Thomas, who along with his three sisters had staked out a grassy spot close to the mud.

Thomas said he was more interested in watching the people than the horses.

"It's our own little Mardi Gras," he said.

Around the paddock, where colorful hats and casual horse watchers mixed with serious handicappers, some Derby-goers dressed for the occasion.

Charles Matasich was making his 41st Derby, wearing the latest incarnation of his annual outfit. Matasich, of Proctorville, Ohio, who calls himself "Derby Man," was wearing a hat covered in roses, with roses painted on his neck and cheeks and a vest covered in Kentucky Derby pins, some dating more than 20 years.

"The whole outfit was just to protect me from the weather," Matasich said. "I love everything about the Derby. I love seeing the horses."

The Derby even produced a truce among some fans. Wes Lower, an Auburn graduate, attended the day of racing with Matthew Monk, a friend who graduated from Alabama.

"We don't talk about football," Monk said. "It's for the horses today. If we start talking about football, there may be a fistfight."

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