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The Most Famous Horse Race In America Also Breeds An Underground Economy

“We’ve been parking cars here since 1978. It's my home repair income."

Posted on May 1, 2021, at 6:06 p.m. ET

This weekend marks what the derby itself calls the “147th renewal of The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.” Photographer Lili Kobielski has photographed the Kentucky Derby for years, looking mainly at the outlandish outfits of the patrons, who come from all over to attend the event.

“Part of my family is from Kentucky and they’re involved in horses,” she said, “so I spent many summers of my childhood in Louisville.” She became much more familiar with the derby itself after she spent years photographing the fashion for Vogue magazine, but she was also drawn to the people who lived in the neighborhood surrounding Churchill Downs. This year she went to the derby looking to speak with people who live in Louisville about how the race weekend impacts them.

For many in the south Louisville area surrounding Churchill Downs, where the race has been held since 1875, tickets are expensive, and charging out-of-towners for parking is lucrative. 2020 was a difficult year for Louisville, the town where Breonna Taylor was shot and killed just over a year ago as the pandemic was escalating. This year surrounding the derby, people are cheerful and happy to be outside. “We just drink and have a good time,” said Darnell Kinnison. “That’s what the derby is all about. And the horse racing, of course, but drinking is, like, the number one thing.”

“The media descends on Louisville in May, but they’re always focused on the inside of the track," said Kobielski. "I was excited to focus on the people of Louisville this year and the hustle culture that pops up around the race.”

Lili Kobielski for BuzzFeed News

A group of derbygoers walk through the Louisville neighborhood on their way to the derby.

Kyle Hart, 35

“My buddy and his uncle bought these three houses. We were renovating them, but it just so happened to be around derby time. We made a little extra tip off the parking. If one parks here, we’re blessed. I don’t want to go too far out of line and be greedy about it. But we want to make the easy money if we can; don’t we all?”

Lili Kobielski for BuzzFeed News

A supermarket near Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby is held

Lili Kobielski for BuzzFeed News

Cheryl Ruttledge outside her home

Cheryl Ruttledge, 56

"Yesterday we made $240, and today I didn’t have anybody yet; I just came out. We’ve been here three years, and we sell the parking spots every year. It really helps out. It helps with your bills, your water, car note; anything you need, it helps with. If you’re smart, [parking] is what you’ll do."

Lili Kobielski for BuzzFeed News

A man advertises for lawn parking in Louisville.

Lili Kobielski for BuzzFeed News

Lori MacIntosh and her pet pig amid parked cars on the lawn outside her home

Lori McIntosh, 53

What do you like about Louisville?

Probably the derby I like the best.

Have you been to the derby?

No. I like the women with the fancy hats and the men with the crazy suits. There was a man a minute ago walking down the road with a dress on; I think he lost a bet last year. I like the race itself; I watch it in my house. I would love to go someday. I’ve been one time to a regular race, but I would love to go to the derby. I think the people that live close, they should give them some sort of discount or a pass where they can go for free. It might never happen, but I think so.

Lili Kobielski for BuzzFeed News

Left: Kyle Hart, a Louisvillle native, advertises parking. Right: Derby patrons in a Louisville neighborhood.

Lili Kobielski for BuzzFeed News

Veronica Ralston (center) sits with two friends on derby day.

Veronica Ralston, 66

“We’ve been parking cars here since 1978. We’ve made $2,000 in a weekend parking cars, but it’s been a couple of years. How many did we get back there today, 12? At $50 a car. It’s my home repair income. We need new doors, so I’m hoping I get enough. That’s what I want to do with it.

"But they’ve been sending all them Ubers down here; I think they’re sending the traffic somewhere else. I love sitting out here and watching the derby when the people come by. Before they get all drunk, we just sit here and watch them. Sometimes they can’t find their cars; it’s funny.”

Lili Kobielski for BuzzFeed News

A man carries a woman through a Louisville neighborhood on their way home from the derby.

Lili Kobielski for BuzzFeed News

People sell water for $1 a bottle in Louisville outside Churchill Downs.

Lili Kobielski for BuzzFeed News

Left: A woman with a parking sign in her neighborhood. Right: A Tesla on a lawn in Louisville.

Ciara Pardue, 24

“This is my first experience this year. Yesterday I charged $30; today I’m doing $40. I parked two cars so far, three cars. I can fit probably about eight. It’s very competitive, yes, ma’am.

“I’ve never been to the derby, but one day I want to go. All the people in their outfits are adorable.”

Jannie Saffer, 59

"I don’t live here. My friends live here, but I come over and park cars here every year for the last seven or eight years. A good weekend is about $1,000. It helps. I haven’t been to the derby recently; I’m too busy parking cars. It’s too expensive over there. It was $50, but now it’s $75 or something crazy."

Lili Kobielski for BuzzFeed News

A couple sit on their front porch in Louisville watching the racegoers pass by.

Lili Kobielski for BuzzFeed News

Darnell Kinnison, back right in the black hat, and his family in their yard. He brings his personal selection of liquor outside to share with people having fun in the neighborhood. He sells parking in his front yard on derby weekend.

Darnell Kinnison, 41

“I like the whole atmosphere of the derby. Everyone seems to have a good time. I just bring out what I have; this is my own personal stuff. You never know what happens; everyone wants to have a drink. We just drink and have a good time. That’s what the derby is all about. And the horse racing, of course, but drinking is, like, the number one thing.”

Lili Kobielski for BuzzFeed News

Stephanie Page holds her sign for parking in south Louisville on Saturday.

Lili Kobielski for BuzzFeed News

Left: A sign at a house advertises lawn parking. Right: Ahmed Ali poses at his house, where they are advertising parking in front and having a cookout in back.

Ahmed Ali, 25

“We’re making money, charging people to park on the grass. We haven’t made anything yet, but we’re still out here just trying. This is our second year. Last year was pretty alright, but we’ll see how the day goes. Yesterday we got about four or five cars. We have our signs out.

"I haven’t been to the derby. The tickets are always sold out, and they have the screen right there, so I always just stand here and watch. I ain’t missing a piece, I got it all. One day I’d like to go. But the prices are, oof — above my head right now. But we just sit back and sit out here and watch it. It’s still a pretty good experience; I’d still invite people over. We’re having a cookout, going to start barbecuing in a minute. Everyone is still getting up after being out last night.”

Lili Kobielski for BuzzFeed News

A woman walks away from Churchill Downs after the derby.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.