By Craig Davis, Craigslegz.com
HALLANDALE BEACH, FLA. — The twin spires at Churchill Downs are iconic in horse racing and recognizable as the backdrop for the sport’s premier event, the Kentucky Derby.
The spires were built in 1895, symbolic of an event steeped in tradition.
The Derby is one of those bucket-list events that I have yet to attend. Hunter Thompson’s account (“The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”) always made me wonder if it was worth the trouble of jockeying with a crowd of 170,000 for a glimpse of an event that boasts of being the “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports” — unless the objective is decadence and depravity.
It isn’t necessary to go to the expense and the hassle to enjoy the Derby. Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla., had a watch party for the 141st running (May 2, 2015), as they do every year. You could place bets and watch the race on several giant TV screens.
Derby Day in South Florida has its own distinct ambience, as with everything else here. That is evident immediately, and the difference is stark, even comical.
Instead of twin spires, the dominant image is a 110-foot tall bronze statue of the mythical winged stallion Pegasus pummeling a dragon with its hooves.
Frank Stronach, owner of Gulfstream Park, spent $30 million on the statue, which weighs 715 tons and was cast in 5,000 pieces in China and Germany. It sits atop a structure that was still under construction which will house a theatre and feature a waterfall.
Stronach, one of those Type A characters who can afford whatever he wants, envisions the piece as representing the fight of good (Pegasus) against evil (dragon).
Notably, Stronach’s arch-rival is staid but profitable Churchill Downs Inc., which also owns Calder Race Course, the other prominent track in South Florida. The two factions have been at odds for years over racing dates, and Gulfstream is winning the power play. So there may be more to Stronach’s vision of what the Pegasus statue represents.
The massive figure is being hailed as a wonder and chided as an eyesore in the banter of public opinion. It is impossible to overlook. Thus, combative Pegasis is the first impression of Kentucky Derby Day at Gulfstream Park.
The parking lot was packed, but it was still easier to meld into the scene than at Churchill Downs. For those seeking the authentic flavor of the event, there was a Derby Diva Hat Contest and mint julep cocktails in a Derby collectable glass for $5.
All that was missing was actual horses in the viewing paddock.
But Gulfstream has its own aesthetic charm with an arched edifice and palm trees, and a racing tradition that dates to 1952. So after favored American Pharoah romped to victory in the two-minute diversion 1,000 miles away, it seemed appropriate to celebrate South Florida style.
That meant a stop at Paladar Latin Kitchen and Rum Bar overlooking the viewing ring for rum-glazed Cuban pork and Jalapeño Spiced Lamb Stew, a satisfying contrast of sweet and spicy.
All of it went down smooth with a mango cilantro mojito. Beats a mint julep any day of the year, even on Derby Day.