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A month ago, my husband surprised me with an early 50th birthday present – a road trip to the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, IL, followed by a visit to family in Tennessee, and on to the Kentucky Derby.

Abe books

See what I mean? I need more Abe books…

It was a dream come true on many levels. For those of you who don’t know, I have a pretty big crush on Abe. I’ve written about him before and have a nice collection of books about him – but not nearly enough.

And attending the Kentucky Derby? That’s been Dream Numero Uno for many years. I watch the Derby every year. Every. Year. When the horses are led from the stalls to the track, my heart skips around and by the time the horses come around the final curve, I sometimes forget to breathe. Good stuff, man.

Our tickets were good for both the Kentucky Oaks, run Friday afternoon, and the Derby on Saturday.

Friday afternoon, we parked in a lot a few miles away from Churchill Downs and took the shuttle bus to the racetrack. Traffic snarled, and it took about an hour to get there.

People watching was great! Hats were everywhere, and one man in an gleaming top hat and tails leaned against a rail. In the gift store, an elegant lady wore a graceful hat – its feathers wisped above her face, and her finger flashed a diamond the size of a dime.

The gift store was mobbed, though – bodies pressed together and we moved with our shoes gummed to the floor.

This lady still had the tags on her hat...

This lady still had the tags on her hat…

The infield was crazy, too. People milled like ants, and we finally found an open spot near the beer tent. Nearby, two girls wrestled. Another girl tottered around on cork-heeled shoes – one heel had mashed flat, leaving her with a lopsided gait that sloshed beer from her cup. Step, spill. Step, spill.

We were just in time to watch the start of the Oaks on the Jumbotron. Suddenly, my husband grabbed my arm and pointed.

“Look,” Tim said, “there they are!”

In a rush, I watched the tips of the horses’ ears as they raced by, the wild colors of the jockeys’ silks flashing before being lost in the crowd.

That’s all I saw. Just like that, the race was over.

We threaded our way to the tunnel, jostling with the crowd making their way to the row of shuttle buses. It isn’t worth mentioning my porta-potty experience except to tell you not to use them if you go. Ever.

We were there for an hour, snaking our way along the s-shaped waiting fences. A large man in front of us wore a uniform of black: pants, vest, fedora and sunglasses. He spewed fumes of cigar smoke behind him, and I inched down, trying to avoid the cloud. His wife tottered unsteadily on teal-colored high heels, swearing a little more boisterously with each gulp of her mint julep.

The couple behind us argued over what shuttle bus to take. What if they boarded the wrong one? What if they ended up at the wrong parking lot? The woman promised the man that she’d “knock him so hard he wouldn’t know what hit him” if this happened. It was his fault, after all, because he bought the tickets.

At this point, I realized that Saturday’s Derby would be worse. Much worse. And I didn’t think this was for me anymore. I hadn’t felt a sense of peace since we entered the gates at Churchill Downs; I hadn’t even seen any of the majestic horses do what they’re bred to do – race with all their heart, running as fast as they can to the finish line.

“I don’t think I can do this tomorrow,” I told Tim.

Being the level-headed person he is, he suggested we return to the hotel and sleep on it. In the morning, deep down, though, I felt the same. I knew I’d rather be at home, watching the race on our TV, listening to the announcers tell me about each beautiful horse as it was led to the starting gate.

Dunbar Cave

Dunbar Cave

So we drove home. And I don’t feel like I lost out on my dream of attending the Kentucky Derby. At all. How could I complain about what Tim had done? Two days learning more about Abraham Lincoln; watching our little grandson jump on his trampoline; hiking the trails at Dunbar Cave State Park, and enjoying time in Nashville. Our Kentucky Derby plans were only a small part of that week.

Not every dream gets fulfilled the way we think it will. Or maybe even needs to. And that’s OK.