Last year, Devin Katayama and I shared a story about Stephen Johnstone and his unique hobby.
Johnstone was a Kentucky Derby gate crasher. Eighteen times starting in 1963, Johnstone and friends would, for lack of a better word, con their way into the Kentucky Derby Winner’s Circle.
They never knew anyone affiliated with a winning horse or Churchill Downs. They had no business there. But there they were, just for kicks.
Last year, Johnstone told Devin he was retired from this business.
But last week this happened:
That’s Johnstone on his way to the Winner’s Circle, where California Chrome was to be presented the garland of roses and his owners a big trophy by Gov. Steve Beshear.
“I guess Kentucky Derby tradition got the best of me,” Johnstone told me last week.
Johnstone was at the Derby last Saturday with friends as a ticket-holding patron. He said he had no intention of going to the Winner’s Circle—but his friends had other ideas.
So he agreed to show them where to go and how to present themselves to get through the various checkpoints across the racetrack and into the select crowd gathered round the nationally televised presentation.
But Johnstone was like a thoroughbred who can’t stop expanding a lead even after the race is won. He just kept going.
Three checkpoints came and Johnstone and friends made it through each until reaching the presentation stand. In the past, he’d made it all the way up—Johnstone, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Derby winner’s owners, the trainer, the governor of Kentucky.
As he’d done before, Johnstone got to the right spot after the race and made fast friends with people who were legitimately heading to the Winner’s Circle, he said.
“It’s just a case of pretending, really—acting as though you belong there, and then associating with people who actually do belong there. If you are with them, you’re above question,” Johnston told me.
This time, Johnstone said he and his friends were stymied before reaching the presentation stand. They were content to watch the presentation from the grounds of the Winner’s Circle.
But they did get into the exclusive party in the Kentucky Derby Museum thrown for the California Chrome’s connections. There, Johnstone and his friends got to hobnob with the jubilant crowd.
“I had a special affection for the trainer, Art Sherman,” Johnstone said.
Of the now 19 times he’s crashed a Derby Winner’s Circle, Johnstone has never seen the roses draped on a horse that won the Triple Crown. He said he’ll be rooting especially hard for this one.
And, no, he said he won’t be at the Preakness Stakes.
Also, Johnstone said this was his last Kentucky Derby crash.
“Now I’m done,” Johnstone said. “I must say I’m retired.
“But I’ve retired before.”