LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Despite its two-minute brevity, the Kentucky Derby is an all-things-for-all-people event.
It is the sport of kings and commoners alike. It is high society on Millionaire's Row and low comedy in the infield. It is a sporting competition, a fashion show, a decadent-and-depraved party, a tradition-steeped slice of Americana. It is an ancient rite of spring that has been drawing people back to the same place in a mid-Southern river town since 1875.
It is vast and contains multitudes.
But for one man among the 150,000 who will pack Churchill Downs Saturday, it means even more than all that.
For him, the Kentucky Derby is life itself.
Meet Joe Mnich.
For the 38th straight year, Joe Mnich (pronounced "Minch") will buy the cheapest ticket available for Saturday's 140th running of the Kentucky Derby and take his place along the fence near the third turn – it was $10 for infield admission back in 1977, $50 now. His view of the Derby horses will last maybe 20 seconds, tops, as they thunder past. Yet the gregarious, fun-loving 60-year-old from Livonia, Mich., will get more out of the Derby than anyone paying thousands for a suite on the finish line.
It's the rich reward for living another year.
Leukemia has assaulted Joe's body. It has ultimately forced him from his job as a financial analyst at Advantage Management Company. A Red Wings season-ticket holder, he's stopped going to those games.
But he will not give up his annual pilgrimage to Churchill Downs.
He was diagnosed with the disease in 2007 and endured a grueling round of chemotherapy starting at the end of May that year – but he was back for the Derby in 2008. The disease came back in 2010, leading to more chemo – but he was back for the Derby in '11. By the third time, in 2012, his body had become immune to the chemo. So on June 14 of that year he had a stem-cell transplant from his brother.
That may have saved him – Joe says he's in complete remission – but the recovery has been arduous. The transplant led to Graft Versus Host Disease, which develops when the donor's immune cells mistakenly attack the patient's normal cells. That's left Joe at a high risk of infection and made exposure to large crowds a risky endeavor. He has a persistent cough.
But it did not keep him from attending last year's Kentucky Derby, despite the concerns of his doctor and those close to him. He put on a surgical mask and made his way to his traditional infield spot.
"It does a lot for me between the ears," he said. "It's like I'm not giving in."
In fact, just getting to the 2013 Derby helped keep him alive.
"His goal was to make Derby last year, and that's what Joe was working for for 365 days," said Janell O'Keefe, a 27-year-old family friend whose mom went along on some of Joe's earlier Derby excursions. "It was shaky until two weeks before, then he got the OK from his doctor. He was like, 'I'm going to the Derby.' "
O'Keefe and her sister, Erin, helped make it possible last year. With the help of a couple others, they stepped in and performed the duties Joe used to do on Derby morning.
They got to the Churchill Downs infield gate at 3 a.m. When it opened at 8, they sprang into action to secure the traditional place in the infield. The weather was absolutely miserable, but they got the job done.
The plan calls for "sprinters and schleppers": a couple people to sprint straight to the spot and hold it, then a couple more to schlep in the heavy stuff: tarps, tents, chairs. Janell was a schlepper: "You can't sprint down the tunnel in rain boots."
For once, Joe didn't arrive until later in the day. He still got there before the first race, but his body wasn't up for the pre-dawn scramble. His friends took care of that for him.
"I said, 'Joe needs to be in his spot, and if I need to get it for him I'll do it,' " Janell said.
He got the spot, mostly staying under cover and out of the rain. But he made a few bets and, doctors wishes be damned, drank a mint julep. He was back in his Old Kentucky Home and relishing it.
Most Derby veterans outgrow the infield as they get older, heading for the more civilized (and pricey) real estate of the grandstand. But Joe is a traditionalist and a populist – he's an infield lifer.
Old friends he'd made among the infield crowd were thrilled to see him. They knew that the 2012 Derby had been rough one and feared that the streak would be broken in '13.
Joe read a copy of a Derby poem he wrote to a guy who calls himself the Mayor of the Infield. They've seen each other for about 20 straight years, one day a year.
"I was praying and hoping I'd see you this year," the Mayor told Joe. "This made my day."
The old Derby trips were wild.
The first expedition Joe made from Michigan, back in '77, was in a rented motor home with 15 other people. He was just out of college and he organized the whole thing.
"We just had a riot," Joe recalled.
The motor home had a toilet and a shower, but the shower couldn't be used. Because that's where they stacked the cases of beer.
They headed south in Interstate 65 early Friday morning. For the trip, Joe put together a cassette tape of music featuring Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand. His friends ejected it and threw it out the window onto the highway. In went the Rolling Stones.
From their spot in the infield, they caught a glimpse of the great Seattle Slew cruising to victory, on his way to the Triple Crown. From that point on, Joe was hooked on the Derby for life.
The next year Affirmed won another Triple Crown, and in 1979 Spectacular Bid was upset in the Belmont to prevent a third straight – Joe went to all three Triple Crown races that year. In 1980 he saw Genuine Risk become the first filly to win the Derby since 1915.
The races were great. The parties were better.
Joe loves traditions, and this was one of his: he'd drink a mint julep for every race before the Derby. It used to be the eighth race of the day, which could leave a man pretty soupy. Then they started moving it back further in the card, and that really got rough.
In '78 they lost a guy. Riley went off with some people he just met, and in the days before cell phones they had no idea how to find him. They took the motor home to McDonald's for breakfast the morning after the Derby, and when they were preparing to leave a VW bus pulled up. Two girls got out and asked, "Do you know a guy named Riley?"
Yes, they did.
The girls shoved him out of the bus, still drunk. But at least they left no drunks behind.
One year they took off for home without Rosemary. She'd gone Sunday to take a couple pictures of Churchill Downs, and they loaded up the RV and left before realizing they didn't have everyone. Fortunately they figured it out before they got out of town.
In '79, a friend found a house near Churchill Downs where the owner was renting out the top floor. The friend stayed in the house, while Joe and his buddies parked the motor home outside and slept on the lawn in sleeping bags. With the shower full of beer again, they cajoled their way into the house to use the owner's shower – eight showers for 14 people.
The lady who owned the house was a sweet Kentuckian named Virginia. They planned to rent her house next year, but someone beat them to it. However, she had a backup plan: her daughter Rose and husband Larry had just moved into a house even closer to the track, just across the street from the Churchill barn area.
In 1980 Joe and the gang rented space from Rose and Larry Ederington. He's done it ever since.
Every year, Rose greets them with three dozen Krispy Kreme donuts. They take group pictures in front of the house. They exchange Christmas cards.
Derby by Derby, Joe watched Rose and Larry's daughter grow up. Now she has a child.
"I've known four generations of that family," Joe exclaimed. "All because of the Derby."
The Derby experience has rippled through so many people thanks to Joe. There are photo albums for days, so many pictures with so many friends. He keeps a ledger of everyone who has made the road trip with him, noting the years.
"The only thing I've done longer on an annual basis," he said, "is to have holiday dinner with my family."
This year's group is six. They hit the road early Friday, as always.
The plan was to spend some time in downtown Louisville, then head to Rose and Larry's. Bedtime is negotiable, but the wake-up call is not – the O'Keefe sisters and a couple friends will be in line at the infield gates by 4:30 a.m. Joe will come along later.
For his 40th Derby, in 2016, his dream is to reunite the original gang of 16. Look out, Louisville.
But if the last few years have taught Joe Mnich anything, it's this: one Derby at a time. He will cherish this first Saturday in May. In a diverse sea of humanity, this race will mean more to the old guy up against the infield fence than anyone else.
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