Updated: March 27, 2013, 7:58 AM ET


You don't have to be fast to catch Derby fever

By Gary West | Special to ESPN.com

It can strike anytime, although symptoms become most visible in the spring; and it can strike indiscriminately, although owners and fans seem most susceptible. Once it grips a person and has him in a pyrexial hug, it never completely lets go. There's no vaccination, no cure. Most people, instead of fighting it, just surrender, quite happily, to Derby fever, and capitulation is probably the best way to deal with it. On the other hand, it's important, even essential, that a few people remain immune, lest the entire racing world succumb to febrile folly.

For those who have somehow avoided it or never witnessed the antics of somebody in its clutches, perhaps a definition is in order here: Derby fever is a fascination with the Kentucky Derby bordering on obsession. It's what makes some people think of horses and hear "My Old Kentucky Home" whenever they see a rose and what makes some fans wonder about mile-and-a-quarter potential whenever they see a 2-year-old break its maiden. Derby fever compels aficionados and investors to roll out of their beds at 5 o'clock in the morning in the cold to examine with a speculative eye hundreds of young racing prospects going through their first career lessons. Nothing but Derby fever could prompt fans to pay piratical prices for hotel rooms in Louisville, Ky., and for box seats at Churchill Downs. In the throes of Derby fever, the most stolid businessmen scurry for their checkbooks and even lose count of the zeroes if there's a promising prospect to be purchased. And only Derby fever could lead people to the conclusion that after God, country, family and friends, the Kentucky Derby is the most important thing in the world, and they might not be too sure about the friends.

It's highly contagious, this fever. Presidents, princes, sheikhs, entertainers, movie stars, writers, millionaires and billionaires have all caught it. The great John Steinbeck described the Kentucky Derby as "one of the most beautiful and violent and satisfying things" he had ever experienced. After his Jaklin Klugman finished third in the 1980 Kentucky Derby, the popular actor Jack Klugman said, as quoted in Jim Bolus' "Kentucky Derby Stories": "That was the greatest two minutes I ever spent in my life."

Not even the great John Wayne was immune. In 1976, the Duke attended the Kentucky Derby and participated in the festivities as grand marshal of the Pegasus Parade. And despite having what was reported to be a losing day at the windows, he so enjoyed his Derby experience that he insisted on paying his own expenses for the visit.

"That would be the greatest thrill of my life," said Paul Hornung, a Louisville native, about the possibility of winning this year's 139th run for the famed roses. As a member of a partnership, Hornung owns Titletown Five, a lightly raced colt who's aimed at the Triple Crown and, more immediately, at Saturday's Louisiana Derby in New Orleans.

Playing for Notre Dame, Hornung won the 1956 Heisman Trophy, and during his long career with Green Bay, the Packers won four NFL titles and a Super Bowl. In 1961, on his way to football's Hall of Fame, Hornung was named the league's MVP. But if Titletown Five wins the Kentucky Derby, and Hornung has the opportunity to walk into the Churchill Downs winner's circle and thank, he said, the people of his hometown, then May 4 will be the greatest day of his life. That's Derby fever.

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The toast of the Kentucky Derby

By Bob Ehalt | Special to ESPN.com

Master Distiller Chris Morris
Woodford Reserve/Churchill DownsMaster distiller Chris Morris creates a "Classic" mint julep with Woodford Reserve.
The Kentucky Derby is more than just a horse race. It is one of those rare sporting events that should be experienced, and, in many ways, treasured by those who have developed a passion for everything involved in it.

Like so many others before and after me, I was basically a wide-eyed tourist on my initial trip to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Aside from eagerly awaiting "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports," chunks of that trip were spent acquiring the standard array of keepsakes.

A hat, a T-shirt, a program, some betting tickets, even a copy of the local Louisville Journal-Courier newspaper; each, and more, were bought and put in a safe spot for transport back home.

Then, on Derby Day, to complete the experience, I ventured over to a beverage stand and bought the drink that has been synonymous with the Kentucky Derby since the race's inception in 1875, the mint julep.

Holding the souvenir glass and looking at that mint julep, it truly hit home that I was spending a gorgeous May afternoon in Kentucky, a few hours from hearing about 125,000 people singing "My Old Kentucky Home" in unison and then watching the Derby live.

I raised the glass to my lips, took a sip … and spit it out on the ground.

"That's not an unusual response," says Chris Morris, the master distiller for Woodford Reserve, the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. "The mint julep is a drink people either love or hate."

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• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.