The year Derby Day broke in Brooklyn

Jamie Hook. (Dan Rosenblum)
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Jamie Hook had spent the past few days preparing southern food (a pot of potato salad, bourbon ribs, and buttermilk cornbread for 60) and working on decorations representing the 20 horses in the Kentucky Derby.

With a little more than three hours left before post time, he was taping small plastic horse figurines to upside-down cardboard french-fry containers in the back of Williamsburg bar Pete’s Candy Store, as his wife, Sarah, reined in the couple's 18-month-old daughter, Holly.

“We’re trying to get her into gambling,” he joked.

“No, we’re trying to get her into winning,” Sarah said.

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Derby Day is becoming a real holiday in Brooklyn, with Derby fans strolling down Lorimer Street on Saturday in bow ties and sport coats, and of course, elaborate hats. The Churchill Downs celebration, with its camp factor rivaling the Easter Parade but without all the religious baggage, spread this year to Seersucker, the Carroll Gardens southern-food restaurant, which was hosting a co-ed fashion contest, and the Bell House in Gowanus scheduling a day around the race including square dances and a sing-along to "My Old Kentucky Home." 

“I love the fact that the Kentucky Derby’s a lot like Hollywood,” Hook said, finishing a Mint Julep. “Like, nobody knows anything, and yet there are these people that make careers off on the strange thing—the erudition of knowing something about which nothing can be known.”

Hook, 42, said he’s never been to the actual Kentucky Derby, but followed the race for about a decade and began to host parties at home when he used to live in Minneapolis. Moving to Greenpoint meant a smaller apartment, but also a local bar—the one where he married his wife in 2008 and that now hosts weekly “Open City” dialogues—in which to host a viable Derby party. He said he loves gambling, trying to finger the winning horse, and handling “raw cash.”

“There’s very few days of the year, when I will have my pocket bulging with, you know, upwards of $1,500 or $2,000 cash,” Hook said. “This is one of the only days. I’m not like a drug dealer, I don’t know that pleasure except on the first Saturday in May. And then I understand, the sort of, like, sonic and the olfactory allure of just having shitloads of fucking lucre in your pocket. It makes me so happy.”

To prepare for the race, he made a half-serious list of handicaps, and this year was rooting for Trinniberg, a longshot with Trinidadian owners who bought their horse by chance.

“Is the horse any good? The horse is okay, but I probably would overlook a petty bad horse with that kind of pedigree, just because I love a loser and I love anybody who will come in as a bottom feeder.”

Winners he doesn't like so much, and after rattling off a list of the favorites he singled out one, I think the horse Gemologist, and said: "He's the kind of horse that used to beat me up in high school, basically, so I don't want to bet on him and I don't want other people to bet on him either," he said, before going out back to add more Bourbon to the ribs.

Some of the first people to arrive for the festivities were a group of Brooklynites in their late 20s and early 30s who sat in the patio, most of them dressed in light-colored derby regalia.

“I’m the reining hat champ,” said Sarah Scott Rhodes, 27, who wore a hat adorned with wads of hay that her boyfriend had helped hot-glue to her hat. They said they’ve been coming to the Pete's Derby celebration for a few years and that their group was making a day of it, starting with brunch before the derby, then some of the group heading to the Crossing Brooklyn Ferry festival after, and some heading straight to the bar. 

“Horseback riding and horse racing was always a large part of my life, so anything involving horses I’ll watch and be a part of it,” said Rhodes, originally from North Carolina.

For her and her friends it was a chance to start summer a little early and take in the spectacle, or as Trevor Velin, 29, put it, “one day pretending to be part of the bourgeoisie.” 

Soon, business picked up and dozens of derby-style hats sprouted up in the bar. Contestants took fake flowers from Ball jars and crushed-tomato cans and fastened them into their hats for a ladies millinery contest.

Hook opened the room to betting and for an hour or so, and he and two women with green bookie visors with oversized replicas of dollar bills attached to them to them turned the back room of Pete’s Candy Store into “Pete’s Paddock and Betting Parlor.” Standing on line, Mandi Warren said friend told her to bet on El Padrino and speculated what she'd do if she won.

"Maybe it'll go into my hat fund," she said, referring to the hats on sale behind the bar.

When the race started, the back room was jammed and fans cheered as I’ll Have Another, who seemed to be one of the bar’s favorites, won just after two minutes.

Then it was over. 14 people won with the bar's 10-to-one odds, some getting $50 and some getting as much as $200. There was still the a hat contest to go, but many who had lost on the race left the back room, heading to the bar or the growing bathroom line.

One woman took a few of the plastic horses and put them in her bag. The bow ties and sportcoats started thinning out and the regular crowd filtered in, and another, more typical Saturday night was underway at Pete's.