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The Kentucky Derby: Beware the Year of the Cicada

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There is a dark and ominous presence on the horizon for this year's Kentucky Derby.

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First, a warning: unlike past years at the Kentucky Derby when happy gangs of booze hounds, semi-degenerates and gamblers cheerfully waved their Daily Racing Forms and Derby hats at all the pretty horses, this year there is a darker, more ominous presence on the horizon.

Yes, a black mood is about to descend on Louisville, Ky. even as you read this, one that causes me to shudder and cringe. You see, this is the Year of the Cicada, and not even Louisville, a tough-talking, blue collar river city with a chip on its shoulder the size of Cincinnati, can stand up to a horde of invading Cicadas.

Go ahead, laugh it up. But 17 years ago, the last time Cicadas invaded the bluegrass, the devastation wrought on Kentucky Derby Day was staggering. I was there, I saw it first hand, which is precisely why this time, as the 17-year cycle returns, I'll be here, in New York City, 645 miles away, watching the spectacle of the Derby from the safety of my own living room, hunkered down in a corner with one hand covering my eyes.

Spring, 1991

We can't say we weren't warned. The warnings - what seemed at the time like ridiculous alarmist gibberish - piled up on front lawns and porches across the bluegrass state in the form of unread newspapers. Night after night glib, dismissive television news anchors tried to choke back guffaws of laughter while issuing half-hearted warnings about the coming "plague" of Cicadas.

We were, all of us, non-believers; infidels of the Cicada. And we would soon pay for our stiff-necked denial.

Cicadas are giant, flying, plant-sucking insects that make a sound not unlike hundreds of thousands of five-year-olds scraping their fingernails down a gritty chalkboard. For reasons that are not clear to me, only because I don't want them to be, these Cicadas apparently cycle in and out of existence every 17 years.

So there I was, May 4, 1991, the last Year of the Cicada, speeding to the Kentucky Derby down I-64 in a yellow 1976 Cadillac Sedan DeVille full of bourbon, country ham biscuits and college pals. It was a moment to cherish, but only a moment. In an instant, a screaming black cloud of Cicadas descended and swarmed upon us with a terrifying ferocity and savagery.

Blinded by thousands of Cicadas as they ruthlessly attacked the windshield of the Cadillac with their hideous carcasses, like a vicious storm of black hail, I slid into a long fishtail on I-64 just as we approached Shelbyville, still 35 miles from Churchill Downs and just past the first wave of Derby traffic. If not for power windows, we'd probably still be picking Cicadas out of our ears.

Inside the sealed Cadillac it was chaos. The bourbon spilled everywhere and was sloshing around the floorboards filling our shoes, soaking the country ham biscuits. Outside the car it was worse; tour buses jumped lanes randomly to avoid the plague of insects, tearing through guardrails and interstate medians planted with special Derby week rose beds. Kentucky swells parading to the Derby in their trademark convertibles never stood a chance; their drop-tops began to fill to capacity with crunchy bugs while their big-haired girlfriends shook their heads violently to knock the Cicadas loose.

No longer able to see the road out the windshield, I drove the Cadillac in reverse the final 10 miles from Hurstborne Lane to Racine Ave., a side street of rundown tenements that sits next to Churchill Downs.

On Racine Ave. on Derby day you can usually park in a one-day entrepreneur's yard for a quarter of the cost of a reserved clubhouse seat at the track, but not on this day, not in the Year of the Cicada. Yet, that's exactly the point at which our weird luck turned.

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