LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- Shrugging off rain and wind, spectators decked in ponchos and even swim trunks staked out spots on the soggy Churchill Downs infield Saturday to party, people watch and soak in the pageantry of the Kentucky Derby.
The gloomy weather held down the usually massive infield crowd in the morning, but the hearty fans who showed up said they wouldn’t let rain spoil a spectacle that for many is a yearly homage and for others was a first-time experience.
“I’m having a blast. I don’t care how wet it is,” said Josh Lauer, who sat in the rain for his first Derby.
Lauer, 29, of Buffalo, N.Y., eschewed the plastic ponchos that became a popular fashion of choice among the spectators. He had quickly embraced one Derby tradition—sipping a mint julep.
“I think I’m going to have a long mint julep career,” he said.
By noon, about 1.2 inches of rain had fallen at nearby Louisville International Airport, said meteorologist Mike Crowe at the National Weather Service office in Louisville. Crowe said the chance for showers and thunderstorms would remain throughout the day, dropping to about 50 percent by race time.
The weather service said the wettest Derby day was in 1918, when 2.31 inches fell.
As the rain stopped during the afternoon, the crowd grew throughout the track.
Meanwhile, the rain altered the colorful fashion show that’s as much a tradition as fast horses.
The crowd sported an unusual combination of skimpy sundresses, flip-flops, cutoffs and T-shirts, and rain boots of every color and design. Rainproof outerwear ranged from black plastic garbage bags to trenchcoats to colorful ponchos. Many signature Derby hats, often custom-made, were wrapped in plastic, with only hints of color showing through.
Los Angeles residents Leslie White and her sister, Karen Kent, gingerly unwrapped their homemade hats to show them to an admirer, their silk roses and peacock feathers popping out from the plastic.
They had planned their trip to Kentucky since January, they said, and while they weren’t letting the weather keep them away, it wasn’t something they had expected.
“We didn’t count on the weather. We thought it would clear,” White said.
In the clubhouse area, where a prime seat along the rail is great for the view but lousy for braving the elements, Donna and Clay Struve of Chicago were thrilled with their front-row seats. During a respite from the rain, the 25-year Derby veterans waited patiently as a track worker wiped down the soaking wet chairs and were optimistic about their chances for staying dry.
“The sky always clears just as the race is about to start,” said Clay Struve, adding that in 2004, when thunderstorms plagued Derby day, they had to wade through knee-deep puddles.
But asked if they would run for cover if the skies open, Donna Struve said the couple and their two friends would just “get wet.”
Spectators are not allowed to bring in umbrellas.
Nathan Davis taped a poncho around his waist and waited near the betting windows on the infield, where it can be difficult to find roof cover. Rain wasn’t stopping his semi-annual visit to Louisville.
“Rain doesn’t matter,” said Davis, 26, of nearby Jeffersonville, Ind. “They still sell beer and you still sneak your liquor in the same way.”
By early afternoon, the infield looked like a makeshift tent city.
Lew Sweitzer of Pittsburgh worked to set up a small tent to shelter family members near the rail on the back side of the infield. For Sweitzer, rain wasn’t going to call off a first trip to the Kentucky Derby.
“This lean-to we got is going to last about 30 seconds,” Sweitzer said. “But, we’re still on the rail.”
For some vendors, the weather dampened sales. Lemonade stands didn’t even open, and ice cream stands had no business.
At the Cox’s Smokers Outlet cigar booth, set up in a strategic spot near the paddock that draws throngs of fans, sales were slow during the morning as rain lingered, said Steve Grantz, who worked the booth.
“People aren’t going to smoke a cigar out in the rain,” Grantz said.
Associated Press writers Janet Cappiello Blake and Brett Barrouquere contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)