Kentucky Derby traditions are transplanted to Iraq

BAGHDAD — Rule number 1: no running. Rule number 2: you better gallop. Rule number 3: if you are caught running, you will be penalized.

First Lt. Jessicah Garrett, of the Kentucky National Guard 138th Fires Brigade, was charged with bringing the Kentucky Derby to Iraq — and she was holding steadfast to the famed sporting event's traditions. There was Derby Pie and Bourbon Balls and even Mint Juleps — the kind made out of Mojito mix and 7-Up — but the pinnacle of Saturday's festivities were the mock horse races. And even though participants in the Derby weren't magnificently reared Thoroughbreds, Garrett wasn't kidding.

"Make sure you stop people if they are running," she ordered soldiers charged with monitoring the race.

While everyone stateside was sleeping, these Derby goers donned showy hats, mouthed the words to "My Old Kentucky Home" and observed three horse races, including the main Derby event. And just for a moment, it was a welcome reprieve from being in a war zone.

"This is the most painful week for me to be away from home," said Capt. Jake McKinney of Louisville.

Not everything could be simulated in Baghdad though. In Louisville, where the actual 134th Derby took place, the weather brought some rain and 72 degree temps. Baghdad was a balmy 94 degrees — and absolutely no rain. And try as they might, the Mint Juleps — the traditional Derby drink of mint, bourbon, sugar and water — just didn't taste the same. Alcohol anywhere on base is a no-no.

Garrett began coordinating the Derby event in February as one of the monthly events the Army offers for soldiers to decompress. Her unit asked to host the May event so they could introduce a little bit of Kentucky culture to other soldiers at Liberty Base.

Family, friends and the unit's Family Readiness Group helped bring the event together, Garrett said.

Due to the sandstorms and other obstacles that delay mail in Baghdad, all items had to be sent by April. Derby Pies began arriving the first week of April, as well as Mint Julep mix, Bourbon Balls, and Derby-themed T-shirts, balloons, plates and cups. Prizes for the event also were donated, Garrett said, among them a George Forman grill, Maker's Mark barbecue sauce, Derby glasses and a wreath of roses.

"I have a laundry list of people who helped," said Garrett. "It doesn't matter what we need, be it a Derby Pie or some more cashews, they send it. There is no hesitation."

Soldiers running in the race not only braved the dessert sun and dust, they had to gallop around a track for 5 minutes — with a make believe horse no less. These horses were made out of anything from socks and towels to brown paper bags attached to pieces of wood. One racer even had a horse fashioned out of a cartoon cut-out of a donkey.

But the best part of Derby day in Iraq was the actual race. Soldiers participating in the race were dressed in shorts or their Army fatigues, but wore silly hats and clutched even sillier horses. As the racers took off from the gate, their fellow soldiers swarmed the fence and cheered them on.

"It was hilarious," said Lt. Col. Todd Thursby. "Putting the restrictions on them, where they had to gallop and not run, where they to run with the sticks...These events break the day-to-day monotony and the stress of being in a combat zone."

But not everyone could understand all the hoopla surrounding the Derby.

"You are all really serious about this," chuckled North Carolina native Staff Sgt. Bruce Bogerty, with the Army's Military Transition Team. "If I make a Kentucky joke, I might not make it out."