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Originally published Saturday, May 7, 2011 at 5:15 PM

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Kentucky Derby fans shrug off high fuel prices

High gas prices didn't stop Tom Pearson from making his long trek to watch the Kentucky Derby from his usual spot in the crowded Churchill Downs infield, or from betting a bundle on the horses.

Associated Press

quotes Can any one till me were the 15 gal's gas has gone, When the barow holds 55gal's of gas... Read more

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. —

High gas prices didn't stop Tom Pearson from making his long trek to watch the Kentucky Derby from his usual spot in the crowded Churchill Downs infield, or from betting a bundle on the horses.

Pearson, who staked out a place with a backside view of the track, spent about $120 to make the drive with his wife from Madison, Wis., but he wasn't pinching on food, drinks or bets while taking in his 31st straight Derby.

"We're not changing anything because of the economy," said Pearson, who expected to bet his usual $400 or so during a long day of horse racing highlighted by the Run for the Roses. "It's a one-shot-a-year deal."

America's most famous horse race showed its resiliency from rising fuel prices.

The 137th rendition of the Derby drew a record 164,858 people who crammed into the famed Louisville track to watch 20-1 longshot Animal Kingdom win the big race. The massive turnout beat the previous record Derby crowd of 163,628 in 1974.

Fans packed ponchos with an eye toward the sky, but the menacing clouds only produced sprinkles.

The cool morning temperatures and threat of rain didn't dampen the fashion scene. Women were decked out in stylish dresses and brightly plumed hats while many men sported suits. In the infield, shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops were in style.

Between horse races, many people were on the lookout for celebrities drawn to the giant party.

Former Tennessee U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, celebrity chef Guy Fieri and New Jersey Nets coach Avery Johnson walked across the red carpet outside the track.

Sarah Ryan of Green Bay, Wis., is a Green Bay Packers fan who hoped to catch a glimpse of Super Bowl MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers at her second Derby. By midafternoon, Ryan had seen a couple of celebrity chefs and Jonathan Goldsmith, who stars as "the most interesting man in the world" in ads for Dos Equis beer.

"I love everything about it, the whole scene," Ryan said.

While gas prices neared or topped $4 a gallon across the country, prices at the track Saturday held steady, with general admission tickets to the infield selling for $40 and mint juleps going for $10 on the infield, the same as in 2010. Cigar prices were unchanged from a year ago at the Cox's Smokers Outlet stands.

A group of seven from Minnesota rented a van for the cross-country pilgrimage to Churchill Downs. They spent $250 on gas to reach Louisville, but Jim Sand of Cold Spring, Minn., quipped that the amount might pale compared to beer and food.

With a beer in hand, Sand shrugged off the frustration of high gas prices.

"It's an event," he said. "You save up and you scrimp on non-essential other things to have a little party."

While some expenses have shot upward, Les Parrett of Seattle approvingly noted that some staples are still the same price.

"A $2 bet is still a $2 bet on your favorite Derby horse," Parrett said.

Sales of mint juleps, pretzels, beer and souvenirs appeared healthy on the infield, as many people started imbibing during the morning.

Jeff Crawford hawked mint juleps to raise money for a girls' dance team in Jeffersonville, Ind., across the Ohio River from Louisville. Crawford said business was good as people looked to enjoy the classic drink.

Annette Graham, who made the eight-hour drive from Michigan with a group, said they were staying at a less expensive hotel in southern Indiana. The group drove down in two cars instead of renting a motor home to save money on gas.

Graham also skipped getting seats in the grandstand and staked out in the paddock area. She couldn't see the track but had a prime view of the horses while being saddled.

"I love it down here," she said. "You've got the big screen and betting windows."

Glenn Bothe skipped the expense of an overnight stay with his wife, their 15-year-old son and their son's friend. They got up at 3 a.m. to make the drive from their home near Chicago. They were retracing their route after the race.

The outing to America's most famous horse race was a Mother's Day gift for his wife, Sylvia.

"She's been wanting to come here for 25 years," Bothe said.

They spent more than $60 on gas and had already plunked down $100 on hats and a shirt.

"The economy is no better for us, but we just decided to do it," Bothe said.

Lewis Grant, a Derby regular since 1989, planned to spend more in bets this year because of his own improved fortunes. The Alabama autoworker said he's working again after being on unemployment the past two years.

Grant, attending the race with his wife, had a $100 betting limit the past two years. This year, he budgeted $300.

"Always bet the jockey because the horses don't really matter," he advised. "If you have a bad jockey, the horse doesn't make a difference."

Vendors selling everything from beer to fine watches did a brisk business under the grandstand. Lines were long in the track's main souvenir stand and automatic teller machines.

Steve Compton, area supervisor for Cox's Smokers Outlet, found eager takers for cigars ranging from $11 to $22.

"Derby is a once-a-year thing, and they come all out," he said.

While women walked around in eye-catching hats sporting feathers or flowers, other people showed off their ingenuity as hat makers.

George Holter, of Prairie Village, Kan., posed for photos in the paddock while strolling around Churchill in his self-made hat. It depicted the track's famed Twin Spires in balsa wood, attached to a plastic baseball helmet.

Holter, attending his 32nd Derby, made the vintage hat in 1981.

"The Kentucky Derby is the greatest two minutes in the universe," he said. "It's like no other day of the year, except your birthday."

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Associated Press writers Brett Barrouquere, Dylan Lovan and Pinky Mehta contributed to this report.

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