Kentucky Derby: Big Hats And Bourbon Return

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A woman wears a decorative hat at the148th running of the Kentucky Derby.
This year, Churchill Downs hoped to again surpass 150,000, its pre-pandemic numbers.

Spectators have crammed in to the first full Kentucky Derby since the coronavirus pandemic began, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in lines to place their bets and buy mint juleps.

Churchill Downs was packed by early afternoon, hours before the biggest race of the day.

For two years, the pandemic upended the typical extravagance of Derby Day. The 2020 running was delayed until Labor Day weekend and held without spectators. Last year's race strictly limited the number of tickets sold. This year, Churchill Downs hoped to again surpass 150,000, its pre-pandemic numbers.

"It feels like we have a normal life again," said Michelle Conforto, a milliner from California arriving for her 12th Derby who was delighted to have to wade through thick crowds again. "It's a milestone for us to move forward."

Her husband, Joe, wore goggles and a stuffed horse named Miss Fancy on his head, decorated in yellow and olive to match his wife's elaborate feathered hat, which encircled her head a foot in every direction. They are Derby fixtures and people stop them to take pictures.

"We get to spend time with people and enjoy our lives," Michelle Conforto said. "Today we feel free."

Zandon is the 3-1 morning line favorite and will start from the No. 10 post. Epicenter is the 7-2 second choice from the No. 3 post, with Messier the 8-1 third choice from the No. 6 post. He and stablemate Taiba (12-1, No. 12) are being guided by Tim Yakteen, who took over training for suspended Hall of Famer Bob Baffert.

At a press briefing Saturday, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear brushed off a question about former President Donald Trump’s rumored appearance at Churchill Downs, noting that Derby Day is “a day of festivity, where hopefully we put any divisions aside.”

“Hopefully, we focus more on the race in front of us than any races in our future,” Beshear added. “It’s a chance for everybody to see that Kentucky is welcoming to anyone who wants to come to this track, former president included.”

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.