LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The party started early on the raucous Churchill Downs infield for Joe Ochsner, who was sipping a morning beer and picking his horses forat Saturday's Kentucky Derby.
Thrifty travel plans freed up more cash for drinking and betting. Ochsner, who skipped the Derby during the deep economic downturn, got together with four friends to kick in $175 apiece to cover the cost of using another pal's RV. They parked near the track and spent the week in the area.
"It beats a hotel," said the 43-year-old from St. Louis, who said he was already awash in cash from winnings at a nearby casino boat in Indiana.
He planned to invest some of his casino windfall in his Derby favorite, Bodemeister.
"This is my favorite thing to do," he said. America's most famous horse race spurred a holiday mood among the huge crowd that gathered to bet, drink, eat and check out the finery.
Mint juleps flowed and colorful hats were plentiful. Debbie Rankin, a 54-year-old bookkeeper from Staunton, Ill., was buying two juleps at a time to cut down on trips to the vending stand. She and a friend expected to spend up to $1,500 combined for their trip to Kentucky.
"It's our vacation," she said. "This is what we like to do, so we do it. We don't care." Early-morning rain left the grounds soggy, but they were slowly drying under overcast skies.
Highs in the 80s were expected. Laura Snyder was making her maiden trip to the Derby - a last hurrah before getting married this month. The 26-year-old from Cleveland set up an infield tent with her five bridesmaids.
"We came here for a good time, to have a blast," said Snyder, who wore a blue T-shirt with the word "bride" printed on it. Her friends, some sporting straw cowboy hats, wore blue T-shirts with the word "bridesmaid" on them.
The group avoided the cost of a hotel by staying with a friend. T.J. Mehan of Columbus, Ohio, gathered under an infield tent with friends from Ohio, Indiana and Louisiana. Infield tickets, which went for $50 each on race day, made the event affordable, said the 36-year-old Mehan.
"Next to the Indianapolis 500, this is the best tailgate party ever conceived," Mehan said. Mehan and friends planned to bet on horses, but were learning the game of horse racing on the fly.
"We're going to throw some horse names in a hat and pick," Mehan said. "This is a whole new experience for me."
Laura Penn, 42, of Frankfort, Ky., was an old hand at betting. She had already plunked down nearly $100 on wagers before the first race.
Penn, attending her 30th Derby, used to pick discarded tickets off the ground to look for winners as a teenager. She expected to spend about $250 on bets Saturday, much of the money accumulated through the year in change jars.
She said there's no place she'd rather be than on the Churchill Downs infield. "You've got all kinds of people," she said. "You can be part of the Derby scene without having to spend a fortune."
Jessica Powell, who recently moved to Louisville from Cincinnati, was experiencing her first Derby with fiance Brian Adams, a Derby regular.
"It's exciting," she said while spraying on sunscreen. "The hats, the people. This whole town just goes crazy for Derby."
They were meeting friends on the infield, but the still-sluggish economy kept the group from being larger.
"We had more friends that would have liked to come today, but with the entry fees and $10 beer they just couldn't make it," she said.
Some track standards were as popular as ever. Sales were brisk at the Cox's Smokers Outlet stands at the track. Patrick Grantz, who was working at one booth, said someone had just bought five cigars for $36 apiece.
"People want to smoke cigars when they're at the track," he said.
"They might not splurge as much on a regular day, but Derby Day is a little different."
Tressa Ballard of New Albany, Ind., didn't make it to the Derby until a friend from Kansas wanted to go in the last couple of years.
She was watching the crowd put up tents, buy drinks and settle in for a long day in the muggy heat. One of Ballard's reasons for coming had nothing to do with the horses.
"It's the only time of year I'm allowed to drink bourbon for breakfast," she said. Far from the partying on the infield, there was plenty of glitz and glamor from Millionaire's Row to the red carpet.
Miss America Laura Kaeppler arrived on the red carpet, as did singer Miranda Lambert and actor Terry O'Quinn, noted for his role as "John Locke" in the television series "Lost."
When asked which horse he would bet on, O'Quinn replied with a question: "You tell me."
The Associated Press