The clang of the bell signals the gates to crash open. To the thunderous roar of an immense crowd, 20 of America’s top equine athletes bound into stride for the 132nd running of the Kentucky Derby. Nostrils flare wide gulping lung-fuls of air, and hoofs churn gouts of dirt as thoroughbreds and their diminutive riders pound the 1 1/4-mile track seeking glory.
On that day, Harry Sleighel, president and CEO of Michaels/Wilder Group, Ray and Debbie McRae of Storage Solutions, and several storage-industry friends were in the stands for a most excellent adventure. The three Arizona associates had been invited to Kentucky as part of a group organized by Steven Womack, president of StorAll. In 1967 Womack informally began meeting with a few associates for a Derby-day party. Soon, 50 friends from all over the United States were coming together to personally experience America’s best-known horse race.
The excitement of Derby day was so intense “you could feel the hairs stand up on the back of your neck,” Sleighel says. The group was in the third tier of the grandstand where they had a clear view of the track and the finishing line. Women were dressed in high fashion and sported elegant hats, in the European tradition. “But the horses were the most beautiful part of it,” Sleighel says.
Competitors were led onto the track to the tune of “My Old Kentucky Home,” and wagers were laid. Sleighel made a fortuitous bet on the combination of Barbaro and Bluegrass Cat based on a familial connection. “My lifelong friend’s cousin is William Casner, chairman and co-owner of WinStar Farm and owner of Bluegrass Cat, so I felt I should show my faith in that horse,” he says.
This year, Sleighel orchestrated travel plans for the group, arranging for attendees to meet in Chicago, travel by train to Louisville and then journey to the race by a special bus procured by Womack. First on the bus itinerary was a visit to Adena Springs Farm in Midway, Ky. The farm is home to several top thoroughbred stallions including Ghostzapper, the 2004 Horse of the Year, whose stud fee is $200,000. On Friday, the party went to Churchill Downs for the running of the Kentucky Oaks, The Derby equivalent for 3-year-old fillies. Later, the party feasted at one of Louisville’s four-star restaurants and speculated on the chances of winning big in Saturday’s famed race.
Tracks to Tack
From Chicago, several members of the group had traveled to Louisville, Ky., in the fashion of race patrons of 100 years ago—by railroad in restored cars chartered from Cruisin’ By Rail, a company that provides lavishly refurbished private railroad cars.
Saved from the scrapper’s torch by private owners, the cars are refurbished and made fully operational. Many styles echo bygone eras, from luxurious business sleepers built for 19th-century railroad officials to Art Deco touches popular in the ’20s.
The train trip took 10 hours to travel from Chicago to Jeffersonville, Ind., just across the state line from Louisville, where they were met by Womack. There were seven private cars in this charter. Some were designated as sleeper cars with individual berths. Three chefs were on hand to prepare gourmet meals. Many commented this was an intimate way to travel and as enjoyable as a cruise.
“You really get to know people that way, yet it can be quiet and relaxing or boisterous and fun,” Sleighel says. “You can read, eat, nap, party or just sit up in the observation car and watch the passing scenery, all to the soothing rhythm of the train.” And during their four-day stay, the train was their hotel.
From the first clang signaling the train’s departure to the thrilling ring of The Derby’s starting gate, this group of storage friends had a memorable time. “I can’t wait until next year,” Sleighel says.
Outside the Box is a new section profiling self-storage folks outside their work environments, up-close and personal. If you have an interesting or inspiring hobby, experience or suggestion for a feature you’d like to share with the industry, e-mail email@example.com
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