Saturday night, 150,000 people will pack Louisville’s Churchill Downs to watch the Kentucky Derby. But only a few will participate in celebrating the victory.
Stephen Johnstone has experienced that celebration many times. He’s been in the winner’s circle with the winning families, jockeys and governors — but not once was he invited.
Johnstone is a retired gate-crasher. The first time he crashed the Kentucky Derby was in 1963. Johnstone and several college friends slipped underneath a fence at Churchill Downs.
He celebrates throughout the day, makes a few bets. When the race ends, he puts on the coat and tie he’s been carrying around all day and schemes his way onto the track.
“I would tell people, for anybody who asked, although it rarely came up, that I was a ceremonial guard,” he says. “And I loved that title because it doesn’t mean a thing … but it sounds official.”
This marked the beginning of a long crashing career. He’s also celebrated with Super Bowl and World Series winners.
“I’m my opinion, the Kentucky Derby overshadows every one of them. I don’t think there’s a better sports spectacle on the face of the earth,” Johnstone says.
His inspiration was a New York taxicab driver named Stan Berman. In 1961, Berman sneaked into the Academy Awards. He presented a homemade Oscar to Bob Hope on live TV for his movie The Big Broadcast of 1938.
“They made occasion of interviewing him after that experience, and the question came up, What’s your next gig? Where are you going to be? And his response was, ‘Look for me in the winner’s circle at the Kentucky Derby,’ ” Johnstone says.
To his knowledge, Berman never made it there. But Johnstone has — 18 times — and he has pictures and dried roses to prove it. He’s also never been caught. Johnstone points to the door and hallway he has navigated to get onto the track after past races.
“We have gone through that walking hurriedly because the race is over and everybody is rather excited and things like that, and then just make our way onto the track,” he says. “And then it’s a case of associating with people who do belong there or who are interviewing various people and things like that.”
Johnstone says, at that point, your job is to share the joy of the moment. He’s done that many times, always with an accomplice. In 1968, it was his friend Sharron Reynolds. Johnstone told her to act as though she was the daughter of the person who has just won the Kentucky Derby.
“And so I was like, ‘Daddy won, Daddy won! Daddy won this is so exciting! I’m so happy for him!’ ” Reynolds says, “and they took us right up and even pushed the governor out of the way so we could get up front.”
Despite never being stopped, there have been close calls. Johnstone’s niece, Sarah, says in 2006 she made it onto the presentation stand and almost got caught.
“It was that moment when Bob Costas was asking, ‘And your name is? And your name is?’ … and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, who do I say that I am?’ You know, you can’t say you’re the trainer’s niece when I could be standing right next to the trainer and his wife and not know it,” she says.
Fortunately, Costas stopped asking the questions before his broadcast began.
Last year, Stephen Johnstone crashed the Kentucky Derby party following the race by pretending to be a reporter.
He says it was his final time, but he’s still wearing that playful smile that shows up in historical Derby pictures.
“But then I remembered the horse’s name was I’ll Have Another, so there’s already a temptation there I guess,” he says.
So while Johnstone says he’s done gate-crashing, his niece is making no promises.