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3:51 am
Sat May 4, 2013

Confessions Of A Kentucky Derby Gate-Crasher

Originally published on Sat May 4, 2013 11:21 am

On Saturday night, 150,000 people will pack Louisville's Churchill Downs to watch the Kentucky Derby. But only a few will celebrate the victory from the winner's circle.

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 celebrated throughout the day, made a few bets. When the race ended, he put on the coat and tie he'd been carrying around all day and schemed 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.

"In 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 [Berman] 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 Johnstone's 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.

He points to the door and hallway he has navigated to get onto the track after past races.

"We have gone through that, and walking hurriedly because the race is over and everybody is rather excited, 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 had 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 Johnstone, 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 that 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.

Copyright 2013 Louisville Public Media. To see more, visit http://www.prp.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And a 150,000 race fans are crowded into Louisville's Churchill Downs today for the Kentucky Derby, but only a few participate in victory celebrations. Stephen Johnstone has experienced that celebration many times. He's been in the winner's circle with the winning families, with jockeys, with governors, and he was never invited.

He is a retired gate-crasher and he shared this story with Devin Katayama from member station WFPL in Louisville.

DEVIN KATAYAMA, BYLINE: The first time Stephen Johnstone crashed the Kentucky Derby was in 1963.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1963 KENTUCKY DERBY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And the cry, they're off, with a mile and a quarter run at Churchill Downs.

KATAYAMA: Johnstone and several college friends slipped underneath the fence at Churchill Downs.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1963 KENTUCKY DERBY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Never Bend and Candy Spots finish second and third to the winner, Chateaugay.

KATAYAMA: He celebrates throughout the day, makes a few bets and then the race ends. He puts on the coat and tie he's been carrying around all day and schemes his way onto the track.

STEPHEN JOHNSTONE: I would tell people, for anybody who asked, although it rarely came up, that I was a ceremonial guard and I loved that title because it doesn't mean a thing, you know, but it sounds official.

KATAYAMA: This marked the beginning of a long crashing career. He's also celebrated with Super Bowl and World Series winners.

JOHNSTONE: 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.

KATAYAMA: 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".

STAN BERMAN: Ladies and gentlemen, I'm the world's greatest gate-crasher, and I just came here to present Bob Hope with his "1938" trophy.

JOHNSTONE: 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: Well, look for me in the winner's circle at the Kentucky Derby.

KATAYAMA: 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 until we try crashing Churchill Downs several days ago.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Who did you speak with? Did you have approval through?

JOHNSTONE: No, we did not but...

KATAYAMA: He still talks his way in and is granted partial access to the grounds. Johnstone shows me the door and hallway he navigated to get onto the track after past races.

JOHNSTONE: And we have gone through that and walking hurriedly because the race is over and everybody is rather excited and then just make our way onto the track. And then it's a case of associating with people who do belong there or who are interviewing various people and things like that.

KATAYAMA: Johnstone says at that point your job is to share the joy of the moment. And he's done that many times and always with an accomplice. In 1968, it was his friend Sharron Reynolds.

JOHNSTONE: And I said I just want you to act as though you're the daughter of the person who has just won the Kentucky Derby.

SHARRON REYNOLDS: And so I was like daddy won, daddy won. Daddy won. This is so exciting. I'm so happy for him. And they took us right up and even pushed the governor out of the way so we could get up front. If you look at that picture, we are right here.

KATAYAMA: Despite never being stopped, there have been close calls. Johnstone's niece, Sarah Johnstone, says in 2006 she made it onto the presentation stand and almost got caught.

SARAH JOHNSTONE: It was that moment when Bob Costas was asking and your name is, and your name is, and your name is? And I was like, oh, my gosh, who do I say that I am? You can't say I'm the trainer's niece when I could be standing right next to the trainer and his wife and not know it.

KATAYAMA: Fortunately, Costas stopped asking the questions before his broadcast began. Last year, Stephen Johnstone crashed the Kentucky Derby party following the race pretending to be a reporter. He says it was his final time, but as he tells me his story he still wears that playful smile that shows up in historical Derby pictures.

JOHNSTONE: But then I remembered that the horse's name was I'll Have Another, so there's already a temptation there, I guess.

KATAYAMA: So, while Johnstone says he's done gate-crashing, his niece Sarah is making no promises. For NPR news, I'm Devin Katayama in Louisville.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Hey, who is that guy in the studio? Anyway, Churchill Downs can get awfully crowded on Derby Day, and tomorrow, Rachel Martin takes a look at personal space. Just how close do you stand next to the other person in the elevator? That's tomorrow on NPR's WEEKEND EDITION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.