Britain's Queen Elizabeth II attends Kentucky Derby
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Queen Elizabeth II, an avid horse enthusiast, got her first look Saturday at Churchill Downs, a racing icon best known for its twin spires and hospitality on Derby Day when mint juleps flow and fancy hats are in fashion.
The queen and her husband, Prince Philip, arrived a little more than two hours before the 133rd running of the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, and went immediately to a private suite. The royal couple had traveled to Kentucky from Virginia on Friday, landing in Lexington, 70 miles to the east.
If ever a person could overshadow the horses at the Derby, this could be the year. Whether the 81-year-old queen planned to publicly acknowledge the crowd remained as much a mystery as which horse would end up in the winner's circle.
Race fans said the queen's presence added to the event's glamour. For at least one day, they were on the same footing with royalty.
"She loves her horses, and this is the place to see beautiful horses," said Mary Vandever, a retired truck driver from Torrance, Calif., who was attending her first Derby in the Churchill Downs infield.
For fans with no chance of getting an up-close glimpse of the queen, there was an alternative. A Queen Elizabeth impersonator drew long lines in the track's paddock area.
For a distinctive Kentucky flair, she posed with a look-alike of Colonel Harland Sanders, founder of the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain.
Judith Gindy of Miami, the impersonator who refers to herself as Queen Elizabeth Too, admitted to being a great admirer.
"I'm very excited. It's my dream to meet her," Gindy said.
Queen Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, arrived in Kentucky late Friday afternoon, touching down in Lexington, 70 miles east of Louisville.
Wearing a lavender coat over a light blue, lavender and white dress, the queen was greeted by Blue Grass Airport director Michael Gobb, his wife, Kristina, and their 9-year-old daughter, Kirsten. Kirsten Gobb presented the queen with a bouquet of pink and white roses.
Also there to greet the queen was former British ambassador Will Farish, who owns Lane's End Farm in central Kentucky.
The Derby was the queen's only public event in Kentucky. On previous visits to the state — the last time in 1991 — she stayed at Lane's End. Farish is providing the queen's tickets to the race.
Saturday's visit won't be the first by British royalty: Princess Margaret, the queen's sister, attended the race in 1974.
"Queen Elizabeth is certainly the most prestigious guest we've entertained in the modern-day history of the Kentucky Derby," track President Steve Sexton said.
The royal couple's visit to the track is part of a six-day trip to the United States that also includes visits to Virginia and Washington.
In Virginia, the queen addressed the Virginia General Assembly and visited the Jamestown Settlement before traveling to Kentucky. In Washington next week, she's scheduled to attend a state dinner with President Bush.
To prepare for the royal visit, a number of Churchill Downs workers took etiquette lessons and the lead chef planned a sumptuous meal featuring a variety of Kentucky ingredients.
For those in the infield, where the beer flows and a carefree attitude reigns, any view of the queen would be from a distance. While the Derby draws plenty of nattily attired fans, the infield crowd is more apt to be in jeans or shorts and T-shirts.
"I don't think it would be her cup of tea," race fan Betty Lyons said of the infield.