For the first 27 years of my life, the Red Mile was just an old wardrobe. I had never been inside and very seldom thought about it.
On a recent Sunday evening I drove three minutes from my downtown home to Lexington’s other racetrack for the first time. I parked at the edge of the lot and hurried inside, passing the brand new “not casino” on the ground floor and taking an elevator up to the floor above. I have always thought of Lexington as a big small town with a surplus of familiarity. The elevator door opened to the second floor and my naivety ran headlong into something completely different and wonderful.
Who were these people? Amish families clinging to the rail. Boot-wearing barnacles yelling at races on the televisions inside. Old folks in their church clothes. Tumnus. Aslan. C.S. Lewis analogies aside, I was disoriented.
The Fifth Third Bank building was glowing blue in the near distance, like a neon sign across a hazy bar. As I waded into this new experience, I began to see the blue caps bobbing further down along the rail. The first thing I learned, even before meeting any members of the group that evening, was Cats By 90 LLC=blue hats.
I shook hands with CB90 co-founders Austin Luttrell and Lee Douthat. One of the syndicate’s members, Barbeque Chris, offered me ribs he had cooked. The Miller Lites were flowing. Despite the fact that it was a Sunday evening, many of the group’s 47 members were present to cheer on one of its horses, Endeavor’s Grace, in the tenth race. It was the final night of what was another successful racing season for the group. Driver Randy Crisler steered Endeavor’s Grace right past us on the rail, warming up.
“Miller Time!” yelled Crisler, to which everyone raised their aluminum bottles.
CB90 was started by Wildcat fans Luttrell and Douthat in 2016. The two had been frequent visitors to the Red Mile for years, and in 2015 took an interest in a horse named Fudge. One particular evening, it was decided that if Fudge were to win his race, they would sneak into the winners’ circle to celebrate with him. He won and they did.
“We just looked at each other and said, ‘This is awesome, and we can totally do it,’” recalled Luttrell, a Transylvania graduate and assistant farm manager at Denali Stud.
Like most smart business men, they decided to finance their dreams with other people’s money. They began shopping $500 buy-in shares to close friends and soon had enough cash to purchase the group’s first two horses.
“We borrowed an old black truck with bald tires, no AC, and misaligned steering,” explained Luttrell.
“You had to hold the steering wheel at a 90-degree angle if you wanted it to go straight,” recalled Douthat, a UK grad and banker at Fifth Third.
“Our plan was that we were going to eat a huge dinner at Ramsey’s at 7:00 pm on Friday, Missy’s pie and all, fall asleep at 8:00 p.m., sleep until midnight, get up and drive so as to get in to Buffalo Raceway at 9:30 a.m., pick up the horses, and drive back,” continued Luttrell. “It all went according to plan, except we didn’t’ sleep after Ramsey’s because we were so hyped.”
Despite lack of sleep, they arrived on time to consummate the deal. Luttrell tossed a cash-stuffed envelope to the guy, loaded up the horses, and booked it back in time to make it to work on Monday morning. Cats By 90 had its first two horses: Veto Hanover and East Meadow.
Five days later the horses were set to race for the first time. Now that there were actually horses, more people had paid the dues necessary to become “involved.” Nearly 70 people showed up for CB90’s debut evening. Members brought friends, wives, and parents. The signature blue baseball caps, which simply read “Cats By 90 LLC” in white letters, were distributed. The buildup was fantastic.
And both horses finished dead last.
“People were throwing their beers and calling me Bernie Madoff,” laughed Luttrell.
A “Trust the Process” mantra was shamelessly borrowed from the Philadelphia 76ers, and Veto Hanover gave the group its first win a few days later. A week after that, he won again. The idea of the group began to sell itself: come have fun at the track with your friends and win races. Buy-in requests rolled in.
CB90’s trainer, Party Time, aka “Trey Brinson,” has been with the group since the beginning and is an integral part of its success. Luttrell and Douthat defer to him on all horse-based decisions. Time accompanied Luttrell on a second trip to Buffalo before the 2017 season. They drove up and back without turning the car off, delivering $19,000 cash to a bartender in exchange for four more horses.
With a new roster, the group notched five more wins in 2017. Looking around at the growing crowds amassing to cheer on the horses, Luttrell and Douthat realized they were both building something of their own while also bringing awareness and patronage to a place that they had come to hold dear.
“It’s like a down home county fair, the Kentucky Derby, a fraternity party, and the day we won World War II, all rolled into one,” is how Luttrell explained the Red Mile. “There is something about sitting there on a Summer night and seeing the Lexington skyline in front of you, wearing khakis, and drinking beer, where you can’t help but think, ‘This is it.’ You can just slip downtown afterwards, too. You don’t have to make a project out of it like you do with Keeneland.”
“You walk in and God only knows who and what you are going to see,” added Douthat. “You can pop in, watch a few races, drink a few Miller Lites, and then head home.”
“Everyone is always happy they went,” said Luttrell. “It’s been getting young people interested, which is the biggest thing nowadays in anything horse-related. We are out there having fun, drinking Miller Lites, and bringing awareness to the sport of harness racing by bringing people to Red Mile three nights a week who wouldn’t otherwise be there.”
It is a good time for all parties involved, but perhaps most pleased by the group’s emergence are the people of Red Mile. Last season the track hosted an appreciative “Cats By 90 LLC Day” during the week of the Grand Circuit races, the biggest of the year. The group was given its own box overlooking the track, they presented a trophy in the winners’ circle wearing the trademark hats, and one of the members even officiated the chili cook-off.
A typical night begins with a trip to Jalapenos or the Chevy Chase Inn, the group’s clubhouse and unofficial sponsor. By 8:00 p.m. they have made it to the track and taken over Wagers, the Red Mile bar. The party continues on to the winners’ circle and beyond. On the CB90 Instagram page is a winners’ circle photo from earlier this summer in which two of the several-dozen members pictured have their shirts off. If you look closely, you can also see that there is a dog sitting in the pictured baby carriage. Kentucky basketball legend and harness racing fan Sam Bowie can be seen in another winners’ circle photograph.
“He was at Red Mile one night and we asked him to join us in the winners’ circle and showed him the hats,” said Douthat.
Most of the other photos on the page are amateur Photoshop jobs showing various celebrities and CB90 members wearing the signature hats.
“We just started sending out a bunch of those and it caught on,” said Luttrell. “I would call people and ask if they wanted to get involved and if they said no I would Photoshop the hat on a picture of them and send it to them and say ‘This is what you would look like with the hat on.’ That usually won them over.”
The pool of members is comprised of all walks of life. Owners of world renowned thoroughbred farms and even Derby winners. Professional athletes. A commercial fire alarm inspector who, after winning $20,000 playing Draft Kings, Luttrell strong-armed into “getting involved.” All of them have embraced the lawless comradery that the group stands for. Passion has been known to take over and the mass occasionally has to be reeled in, but it is generally recognized that the boys in blue hats are doing way more good than harm.
“It’s just about having a group of people who are fun to be around and watch races with,” Luttrell said.
Luttrell took me up a rickety back stairwell and onto the roof of Red Mile. We tiptoed across and entered a small wooden box overlooking the entire compound. There he introduced me to Gabe Prewitt, Red Mile’s longtime announcer. The box was small and felt makeshift. Three televisions were showing races from tracks around the country.
Prewitt owns several horses, including the winner of the first race that evening, as well as serving as the voice of the track. He watched the race below with binoculars, rarely looking at the program. Moths swirled around the floodlights outside of the plywood roost. A respected member of the harness racing community, Prewitt helped Luttrell and Douthat get CB90 off the ground when it was first starting up.
“He made sure we weren’t getting completely hosed,” explained Luttrell. “We owe a lot to him.”
Prewitt was quick to return the praise.
“It’s great what these guys are doing for this place,” he said. “So many people don’t even realize it is here.”
Prewitt took a break from our conversation to call the next race in which Kentucky Offensive Coordinator Eddie Gran had a horse, then we returned downstairs to rejoin the rest of the group.
The starting gate at Red Mile was nothing like the one used at Keeneland. It was a large contraption fastened to the top of an old Cadillac. The Caddy drove down the track, pacing the horses lined up closely behind its “wings.” When the gate folded out of the way, the race began.
Endeavor’s Grace finished second to last, despite the valiant rooting efforts by the CB90 crew. There was a moment of letdown, but it was brief. Everyone polished off their Miller Lite’s and shuffled to the exit.
“Great season,” one said, slapping Luttrell on the back.
“We are doubling up, ten wins next year,” said another as he shook Douthat’s hand.
“At least,” he responded.