LOUISVILLE, Ky (Reuters) - Spectators in seersucker and straw hats crowded into the Kentucky Derby on Saturday in hopes of picking the winning horse and perhaps glimpsing one of the biggest race fans of all — Britain’s Queen Elizabeth.
The Southern charm of Churchill Downs took on a bit of a British accent in honor of the first visit by the queen, who watched along with thousands of race fans as Kentucky-bred favorite Street Sense won the 133rd “Run for the Roses.”
Royal admirers entwined a string of Union Jacks along the flowered paddock near the racetrack’s entrance, and the monarch’s visit added excitement to what is the first leg of the Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing.
The queen, wearing a lime green wool coat with a matching silk dress and lime green hat with fuchsia trim, arrived with husband Prince Philip a little more than two hours before the late afternoon race.
The monarch was given a round of applause as she entered a private suite accompanied by Will Farish, a former ambassador to Britain.
Erica Fencil, a college student from San Diego, was surprised to find herself in the same suite as the queen.
“It’s unbelievable,” Fencil said. “I can’t believe I’m in the same room with her.”
Fans in shorts and flip-flops mingled with ladies in rose-adorned hats and men in summer suits as crowds packed the storied racetrack.
Many mixed a fondness for racing with an eagerness to see the British monarch, who arrived in the United States on Thursday for a six-day trip that will include a visit to the White House after her stop at Churchill Downs.
“I’m a bit of a race fan, and I’m from the UK myself,” said David Gilliland, 27, wearing a huge Union Jack as a cape as he wandered near the paddock. “With the Derby and the queen all in one place, it was too good of a combination to resist.”
Americans were just as eager to spot Her Majesty.
“We’ll certainly try to see her, we’re determined,” said Laura Smith, 40, of New Jersey, sipping a Kir Royale champagne cocktail with friend Sue Woodard, 38, from Minnesota.
Woodard said shopping for the Derby was as much of an adventure as attending the race itself. Both chose elaborate hats — Woodard in black-and-white linen, Smith in pink straw — for the event, and confessed they were still learning how to wager as the day’s 12 races went along.
“For the Derby itself, we’re going to put $5 on each horse so we can say we won,” Woodard said with a laugh.
Kentucky-bred Street Sense became the first Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion to win the Run for the Roses. Hard Spun came in second, while Curlin placed third in the field of 20 three-year-olds.
Organizers hoped some 155,000 fans would attend the Derby, despite threatened rain, including celebrity singers Jewel and Kid Rock, actors Raquel Welch and Wesley Snipes and sports stars Michael Jordan and Peyton Manning.
“My favorite horse is Imawildandcrazyguy, because I feel like I’m a wild and crazy guy, so he’s a kindred spirit,” said David Beddell, 26, an engineer who traveled from Cleveland with friends for his first Derby. Beddell, in cargo shorts, green T-shirt and flip-flops, eschewed the Derby’s popular mint julep cocktail in favor of a glass of draft beer.
“I’ll sample all the various beverages, but I feel beer is the best economic value at $6 — it’s a long day,” Beddell said.