Riding High

Cintra Wilson does the Kentucky Derby

Published May 6, 1997 12:07PM (EDT)

a scarce few fillies, three to be precise, have ever won the Kentucky Derby in its 123 years. Two of them were named Genuine Risk and Regret. I spent the weekend with them.

Darla and Eileen were friends of friends. I had never met them before.
Darla, who has had a shadowy past, is now living the good life as the former-other-woman-now-main-love of a rich good ol' boy who is embroiled in a feverish and obsessively hateful divorce. She is recently back from having "everything done" in Brazil (eyes, face lift, lipo, tits, lips and nose, seamlessly constructed by a doctor of evident cost and fame). She is a blisteringly fetching bottle blonde in a tight little suit, ablaze with a large turbo personality. She wears sunglasses with large gold medallions of the Chanel logo. Earrings of large gold Fendi medallions. Jacket buttons made of large gold YSL medallions. Pants with large gold Versace medallions sewn all over them like conchas. Hermes scarf. Vuitton luggage. In short, more endorsements than most race cars. "I had mah boyfriend Hal go pick up an 8-ball for me for the weekend -- I said, 'Honey, could you go pick up a little handbag for me at my cuzzin's house?' The coke was in the inside pocket. If he knew he was drivin' around with all those drugs, he'd be so pissed!" Her turquoise eyes go all round with mischief, her cupid's-bow mouth, which has other parts of her body injected inside of it, puckers into a naughty grin around her cocktail straw. Darla and Hal were my Kentucky Hosts for the 123rd Kentucky Derby.

Friday at legendary Churchill Downs was consumed by the Kentucky Oaks, the preliminary all-filly race. The place was already saturated with pre-hats, hats spectacular yet not too spectacular, worn by women who were saving their real head regalia for Saturday. There were repeated announcements enticing the Oaks viewers to meet LeRoy Neiman, the "Official Artist of the Kentucky Derby." Most of Louisville (say: Looahville) was there for the Oaks: There were a record-breaking 92,000 people in attendance. The Oaks is a Derby weekend party prerequisite, but the event seemed to be far less about horses and gambling than about the Scene of thousands of monied Southerners milling in and out of the stand boxes in a floral blizzard of loud spring suits, kissing and trashing each other with equal relish. "Hi Guuuuurl! Hayah ARR yew? Yew luk grite! ... (Sotto voce): She OUGHTA luk grate, she's been fuckin' that big Negro behand her husband's back for two months."

Mendacity seems to be the goal and intent of Southern Orthodontry. All Southern girls have the same block set of huge white teeth, erected to form a flat and carnivorous edifice across the front of their faces, surrounded by Liner and Gloss, the Danger camouflaged like a Venus Flytrap. Rabid trophy alligator stewardess smiles. The majority of these women are roiling with violent personal unfulfillment, due to their construction pattern. First they go to elite all-girl Catholic elementary and high schools. Somewhere in that time they attend cotillion and social dancing. Then they go to a prestigious university, and since most of them have pretty sharp academic skills, they actually get prestigious degrees, but these are used as purely ceremonial husband-bait. Then they get married and relentlessly remodel their husband's homes, room to room and back again, until they get pregnant. Once they have children, they send them to boarding schools and get miserably loaded on pills and bourbon and hate their husbands for having destroyed their lives. Their husbands cheat on them, then they re-activate whatever drive got them their degrees and devote all of their suppressed sexual and creative energies toward legally (and not-so-legally) destroying the lives of their soon-to-be-ex-spouse. This is all anybody talks about at the Oaks when the horses come in, save for the odd mention of a business deal among the gentlemen.

Darla and Eileen were not these women, but the Bad Women with whom the husbands cheated. Much to their own bewilderment, they had both found themselves on the fast track to matrimony. However, their talent for drinking and narco-sucking was equaled only by their aptitude for self-sabotage, which constantly kept their fiancie status in a precarious position.

darla operated all weekend in a keenly balanced fusion of Prozac, cocaine, Xanax and Tavist-D, with an omnipresent screwdriver, which she kept in the beverage slot next to the passenger seat in Hal's Oldsmobile, next to Hal's plastic tumbler of Maker's Mark. You'd never guess how stoned she was. "Yew gotta meet mah best friend Eileen," she gushed with specious articulation. "And when you do, take a luk at her engagement rock. It's the biggest damn thang you ever saw."

We found Eileen, a striking, 6-foot, greyhound-cheekboned blonde, near the finish line in the midst of a seat of hats. Eileen was similar to Darla, but lacked the depth of her criminal mind. Eileen was always getting caught: so was Darla, but Darla cared less. The whites of her eyes were showing all the way around and her tongue was vibrating visibly. Eileen was clutching a stack of racing forms that her computer program had just spit out as if they were the Lost Scrolls of Judea. "She's got this computer program that does all the handicapping for her, but she never wins," explained Darla in a stagy gossip whisper. "Gurl, you got some money?" Eileen asked Darla, with The Fear crawling up her sequined skirt.

"How much you want?"

"Two hundred." Then into Darla's ear with frightening intensity, "Don't tell Bernard! He can't know how much I lost today, I'm gettin' slaughtered." Darla pulls me aside. "That girl's been geeked up all weekend on coke. Her fiancé doesn't know, so she's all paranoid." Eileen grabs Darla and looks very intently into her sunglasses. "Ah swear, everybody's fukkin' starin' at me." Darla pulled away from her and whispered in my ear: "The last time I came to the Derby I had been up all night on mushrooms, and a friend of mine broke into my apartment and tried to kill herself by taking all my pills." I guessed that Darla had one of those huge, restaurant-quality stainless-steel subzero refrigerators, full of more triplicate-perscription narcotics than an AIDS hospice. "I had to get dressed and be ready to be picked up in an hour! So I called the emergency people. What a pain in the ass! I had to kick her body over trying to look for my shoes. When they finally came, I didn't want her to have to come back when she got her stomach pumped, so when she was on the stretcher I hung her handbag on her foot." Eileen's engagement ring was the hugest diamond I have ever, ever, ever seen. Bigger than a canine molar. You could have constructed a ship inside it. "Bernard is a kind man," she says about it, bored.

Drinks and dinner were the order of the day after the Oaks races. Everybody had a party going on. Everybody in Kentucky grew up with each other and knows everybody's business, down to current bra size and venereal infection, and gossip is as pervasive as it would be in medieval Russia. All through dinner, and after, in front of each other's faces, everybody was playfully insulting, all the time.

Dean: "Ah'd lahk you tuh meet mah fraynds, Johnny Ray." Johnny Ray (carrying tumbler of Dewars, red, weaving): "Whut? YEW got FRAYNDS?" (backing up, spreading eyes wide and pursing lips together as if to say, "Am I the rascal that just said that?"). And comments of the like, from everybody, all night long.

"Yew don't LAHK us to be together, DEW yew?" hollered Darla at Bernard and Hal, as the two of them conspired at midnight outside the restaurant to drag their respective mates home for a night of sleeping, something Eileen and Darla considered to be a stupid waste of time. "Aww C'MON honey, it's LATE," whined Hal, obviously wishing for some Kwality Time with his Gurl, a sentiment Darla had been dervishly oblivious to.

"It's a CONSPIRACY, Eileen. They're AFRAID of us when we're together." There is a long, long sordid history of Things That Happened when Eileen and Darla were left to their own devices, things I heard about in giggly snatches through the weekend. Vacations nobody is ever allowed to mention again. People torched, dogs shot. I was grateful when Hal finally wrestled Darla into the Olds.

Despite Hal's efforts, Darla stayed up all night with another house guest, chopping lines and furtively conversing at the kitchen table, while Hal fumed alone in the bedroom until 6 a.m. Eileen called in the middle of the night, suddenly deeply upset, at 5 a.m., over her pre-nuptial agreement. "Fahve thousand dollars is all ah get if ah'm with Bernard three years! Don't yew think that's insulting? Ah feel lahk ah'm being punished!"

"You can see WHY," said Hal, discussing the conversation with us the next day. "That girl is a 50-1 shot at best."

I was the second person awake on Derby day, and went down to the kitchen to find Hal picking up objects and putting them down again with unnecessary noise and force. "They'd better be gettin' up soon, or we'll miss the whole damn Derby," he muttered darkly. The five-foot television in the living room showed a sign that said "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, life is too short, so party we must," tacked onto the side of a trailer with all of the shades drawn parked outside Churchill Downs. "All of Kentucky was partying pretty heavily last night, it looks like," said the newscaster. "We don't expect the Derby attendance to pick up until after 1 or so." Darla came downstairs a short while later, a perfectly assembled vision in expensive celery green, her sunglasses already on over her Wagner-volume headache, with no evidence of the previous evening's festivities save for a small red sore spot under one nostril.

"Hel-looooooooo." she said sweetly. "May I please have mah mornin' cocktail, Hal?" Hal looked at her and chuffed.

I imagined the bounty of repair work and groveling she would have to do before she regained his good will, and shuddered.

The Kentucky Derby itself was a huge peacock of an event, embodied by one tall, devastatingly sexy older aristocrat woman whose appearance cold-cocked me. She was wearing a huge light green lifeboat of a hat, covered with pink tulle and exuding monstrous feminine charm and wealth, tipping her head back, laughing low and big and deep. My heart exploded at the sight of her so I snuck up and got a sly Instamatic shot. Ten seconds later she grabbed my arm. I thought she was going to push me effortlessly into hell by sticking one of her long coral fingernails into my forehead and leaning. "I'm sorry! I had to take your picture! You ... you look TREMENDOUS!" I stammered.

"So do YEW. Ah thought you were my DAUGHTER," she said, pushing her beautiful, agelessly stretched face close to mine. "Well come here, gurl," she said hotly with sweet alcohol breath, pulling my hips close to hers for a photograph.

"AH'M your mama NOW. Let's show off our nahce long BODIES." It was very confusing to be sexually teased by somebody offering to be my mother. I needed several juleps to get over her.

The Kentucky Derby is, after all, without the Scene, a horse race. Following the lyrics on the enormous monitors, I sang "My Old Kentucky Home" as loudly and abrasively as possible, earning the dirty looks of a couple of frigid wives in square little pillboxes and nubby little Chanel casings sitting unplayfully next to us. My horse came in. It was one minute and 23 seconds of raw excitement. The best part was the behavior of an older woman sitting behind us, who also won. "Go," she said huskily, at first. Then she stood up. "Go ... GO ... GO! ... GO!! ... GO!!" she was stomping rhythmically and breathing like a horse and her chest was heaving and when her horse came in, she climaxed with the kind of erotic power that only an older woman for whom sex is a huge, personal dynamic convergence of hot, pre-menopausal life-zeniths can have. Of course this was the South, so it was all about the money.

After the Derby, we were all slightly relieved, because Darla had hit the end of her 8-ball. Now there will be rest and repair, I thought. Now she and Hal will make up, and everything will be right with the world. Ten minutes after the last line was chopped and consumed, at around 11 p.m., Eileen called from the cell phone of her Mercedes. Her teeth were clacking through the receiver.

"Gurl, I'm GEEKIN'! Ahm sittin' here in a parking lot! I'm gettin' more SHIT!"

"Well, bring your bad self on over then," purred Darla.

"All right, SHIT! Bernard's gonna KILL me!" Darla hung up the phone.

Hal walked out of the bedroom, purple with rage. "Ah HEARD you."

"Whuuuuut?" chirped Darla sweetly.

"Yew ENCOURAGED her," recriminated Hal, who knew he'd be sleeping alone again and was bristling with hurt exasperation. Darla lightly reprimanded him for listening in on her private conversation. Hal scowled back into the bedroom.

Hal reappeared in purple-necked rage at 4 a.m. "That is not MODERATION, Darla!" he hollered at the top of the stairs before loudly slamming his bedroom door again. Darla hunched her shoulders over the little mound of drugs, with her eyes wide and that childishly wicked little smile on her face. "Ah've never seen him so MAD before!" she snorted brightly.

Eileen woke the coke dealer back up at 7 a.m. on Sunday, from Darla's house. A two-second phone call. "Hey, Stubby. Eileen. Listen ... don't tell Bernard! OK. Thanks." Click.

The next phone call Eileen made was about 7:30. "Bernard? Bernard? Tell me you're not mad at me. Please? OK, tell me you love me then. Please?"

Sunday morning, I was expecting to see Vuitton luggage packed and ready for dismissal next to the door, repentant departing Darla in tears on the couch, Hal tossing her jewelry into Tupperware containers to facilitate the Big Break. Instead, I knocked on their bedroom door at noon. "Come on iiii-yun!" came the sing-song voice. "Darla, honey?" I asked as I crept in. "Everything OK?" "Oh yessssssss."

I could not imagine a reprieve. Hal had been too angry. She had misbehaved far too badly. Her recidivism rate was too damning. "Oh, Eileen gave me some ammunition. She told me a little somethin' that Hal did while I was away. Somethin' that he LIED to me about. So at 8 a.m., when I came into bed, I said, 'I'm comin' into bed now, honey. By the way, yew LIED to me about such n' such. Nite nite.' I was bad? He was BAD bad. So he can't say nothin' to me about last night. See? It all evens out in the long run. All forgiven." Big, big smile.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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