\'Looville\' is a buzz

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:09 AM ET

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Niall O\'Callaghan is a horse trainer. He\'s also Irish and is the part owner of a bar. That folks, is your party trifecta.

Looville, as the natives like to call their home, normally is a sleepy city of about 250,000 people.

But on Kentucky Derby weekend, the working-class town transforms into a world-class party place.

In the true spirit of his adopted home, O\'Callaghan is front and centre for the festivities.

\"Why do people love the Derby so much?\" O\'Callaghan said this week. \"For the same reason they like Mardi Gras, or the Indy 500, or the Final Four -- because there\'s a buzz.

\"People can come here and absolutely know they are not going to have a bad time. This is the place to be.\"

Judging by the \"buzz\" on the patio at O\'Callaghan\'s pub, Molly Malone\'s, on Thursday night, Derby Fever arrived this year on time and at its usual frenetic pace.

The Kentucky Derby Festival lasts for two weeks but is at its best beginning from Thursday of Derby week.

Yesterday was Oaks Day at the Downs, a great card of racing that gets people in the mood for Friday night parties and today\'s main event.

\"For the people here, Derby and Oaks are like a holiday,\" said O\'Callaghan, who has lived in Louisville for 11 years. \"Unless you work in a service industry, the whole town shuts down on Friday and doesn\'t open again till Monday.\"

There is a drug counter at Wagner\'s Pharmacy but that\'s not why they are lined up outside the door every morning.

Wagner\'s is also a greasy spoon restaurant, a favourite haunt of trainers, grooms and hard-core racing fans.

The walls are overcrowded with pictures of past Derby winners, many of them autographed. For $4.50 you can get the Derby Breakfast Special -- two biscuits with gravy and eggs.

\"One year we were here and Bob Baffert sat at that table right over there,\" said Floridian Betsy Powell, who is attending her 12th Derby. \"He\'s a sweet man. He has won three Derbies you know?\"

Yes we know. And the silver-haired trainer will try to get number four today with long shot Indian Express.

Trainers and horse owners like to hang at Wagner\'s -- a tradition for more than 60 years -- to talk shop and pour over the racing form. Tourists show up to rub elbows with them and hopefully have a winner or two rub off as well.

By late in the week, it\'s next to impossible to get a table at Furlongs, an upscale cajun restaurant and bar in one of the city\'s upscale areas.

Like many joints in town, the racing theme is big. There are pictures of big horses and big races on the walls and mint juleps on the menu. Jockey Shane Sellers is a part owner and it\'s a reasonable bet you\'ll see a famous horse personality most nights.

Business is brisk at Furlongs as it is all over town.

\"We\'re absolutely packed on Thursday and Friday and people go pretty hard all week,\" says Andrew Hutto, owner of the Baxter Station Bar and Grill. \"It\'s an awesome time but we\'re pretty happy to see Sunday come to rest up.\"

The racing and Derby themes run thick throughout town. Near the track, there is the Whirlaway Bar, named in honour of the 1941 Derby winner. It\'s a dive but the beer is cold and the racing talk is hot. Ditto for the Quarter Pole Tavern just down the street.

In the Louisville phone book there are more than 100 businesses with Derby in their name.

Churchill Downs doesn\'t miss a beat marketing its big show. There is an official bourbon (of course), plus a designated grocery store, airline, automobile and cell phone.

And all in the name of a race that likes to bill itself as the fastest two minutes in sport.

If they can\'t cash in at the windows, hotel owners aren\'t shy about trying to score another way.

Like many big events, price-gouging is in full effect.

A room at a nondescript motel goes for $59 earlier in Derby week but if you want to stick around for the show it will cost you dearly. Most hotels require three-night minimum packages and at the hotel in question, that goes for $870.

Hotel owners admit it was a slower sell this year than most because of the threat of war. But by late in the week, most hotels were full or close to it.

\"They\'re going to come regardless of what the circumstances are in the world,\" said Karla Yeaker, president of the Louisville Motel-Hotel Association. \"It\'s a tradition.\"

\"Who do you like?\"

Bartenders, cabbies, waitresses -- everyone it seems -- has an opinion on the big race.

You hear the question wherever you go this week in \"Looville\" where the natives drop the pronoun and refer to the race simply as \"Derby.\"

While it\'s a big show for out of towners, the locals live large too. For both Oaks and Derby day, women tend to get dressed to the nines and reserved seats are expensive -- if you can get your hands on them.

\"For four months, all the girls will talk about is their hats and their dresses,\" O\'Callaghan said. \"It\'s a big thing for them and a subject of much conversation, believe me.\"

It\'s Derby eve and the buzz is at full volume. It\'s the biggest party night and the stars are coming out.

Janet Jackson is supposed to be at one of the gala balls, country singer Travis Tritt at another and one more still for rapper P. Diddy. Alice Cooper is among the rock stars, actors and athletes who like to make the Derby scene.

Today, the stars will crowd into the swanky Churchill Downs dining rooms where it is the \"in\" place to be.

Meanwhile, from the upscale clubs to the dingy dives, the bourbon and beer will be flowing well into the wee hours of Derby morning.

\"The Derby means something different to everyone,\" O\'Callaghan said. \"But if there is a common denominator, other than trying to pick a winner, it is that they like to party.\"


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