Regardless of the profession, just about everyone involved in the horse racing industry has, at one point in his or her life, been asked the same question.
“Have you been in the Kentucky Derby?”
The question is normally posed with an air of smugness from a person who has no real interest in the answer or knowing more about the sport than the little guys in the colorful shirts and that one horse that died a few years ago.
The odds are pretty slim that I will one day be a participant in the world’s most recognizable horse race, but at least I have gotten close enough to lie.
The long-threatened stormy weather had settled over the greater Loiusville area and had everything soaked by the time I reached the media lot in the morning. With even more congestion and traffic restrictions than the day before, the bus ride to the track was its usual nail-biting affair. But in the end, the driver got us to the gate in one piece.
For what some may consider the biggest day of racing in North America, the grounds were quite peaceful the morning of the race. Naturally, there were the normal sounds of employees rushing about and a few wandering patrons discussing the upcoming card, but hardly the overwhelming scene for which I had prepared myself.
The press box, on the other hand, was already abuzz with turf writers preparing for the day ahead. I set up my office at the Thoroughbred Times table and began compulsive checking my social networking accounts in an attempt to settle my nerves. Like many other addicting behaviors though, it only worked until I stopped doing it.
First post was at 10:30 a.m. before a modest crowd, even for a normal day at Churchill Downs. The infield, normally a spot for shirtless debauchery, was soggy and desolate. The reserved seats six stories below the media balcony were largely unpopulated. Because it was my first Derby, I was unsure if this was a normal happenstance or if the wind and rain were going to scare off so many fans I would have to help report a new record low attendance. Many a lady’s large, expensive hat liberated itself from its head as its owner lunged helplessly toward it.
The crowd gradually thickened throughout the day until it reached a Derby-quality level. By the end of the day, the anarchic nation that was the infield had formed a mud pit near the clubhouse turn for sliding and wrestling. Compared to Kentucky Oaks day, the general admission types were largely better behaved. Whether the $40 price tag for bottom-barrel admission kept out the riff-raff, or they just all congregated in the infield, all I know is one less mint julep ended up on my suit at the end of the day.
My two on-track assignments for the day were the Churchill Distaff Turf Mile and the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic. Then, after the big race, I was to wander the backstretch in search of quotes from the losing connections.
First on the list was the Distaff Turf Mile. Because of the weather, the crowds huddled under the covered areas of the ground floor. This meant dropping a shoulder like retired NFL fullback Craig “Ironhead” Heyward and plowing through the masses from the press box to the “Owners and Trainers Only” door. Am I an owner and/or trainer? No. Did I have a laminated piece of cardboard that let me through anyway? Oh yeah.
While the field made its way toward the gates, I leaned on the rail in the winner’s circle and took in the surroundings. One of the most fascinating aspects of what was going on around me was the members of the National Guard placed at every other rail post approaching the finish line. I felt a strange mix of respect and pity as they stood at attention in the driving rain for no apparent reason, other than to serve as human lawn ornaments. Watching them pass the order of “at ease” down the line like a game of “telephone” was also quite hypnotic. Personally, I can not think of any Derby-related job I would want less, short of tending to the infield Port-A-Johns, but it sure is cool to see them whizz by as the camera follows the lead horse to the wire.
The race was won by Todd Pletcher charge Phola, which held steady with my “hope for the easily recognizable connections” plan. However, my ease quickly turned to dread when I realized I had misplaced Pletcher in the winner’s circle. Among his list of skills, he has apparently added the ability to vanish like a ninja. Perhaps this was the one thing that was standing between him and that elusive first Kentucky Derby win. Anyway, I eventually got what I needed and got to work on the story, which can be read here.
While working on the above story, I saw a large faction of the Thoroughbred Times staff gathered around a laptop displaying the races from Beulah Park. The central Ohio track’s Fortune 6 carryover had floated into seven digits with a forced payout on the last day of the meet, and team TTimes had a piece of the action. With one of the biggest betting cards of the year happening right outside the press box window, the eyes of many were on a field of $5,000 claimers a couple hundred miles away. Someone at Beulah Park deserves a very nice bonus.
The TTimes crew ended up hitting the wager, but with so many other punters chasing the prize and a lack of long-priced horses coming home first, their share was well whittled down from the $1 million-plus. I don’t recall the exact payout, but it was certainly worth playing.
With the last race’s story in the tank, it was time for the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic. The rain continued to pour as I stood at the rail near the jockeys’ scales chatting with the equally drenched handler of pacesetter Wise River. As the field headed to the post, announcer Mark Johnson hyped the Woodford Reserve as the most prestigious turf race in North America. I was not aware of this. In fact, I would imagine the folks behind the Arlington Million may have something to say about that statement, but I could be wrong.
The race was won in a hard-fought effort by fan-favorite General Quarters. From a writing perspective, the race could not have turned out any better, because this meant getting a chance to interview the horse’s owner/trainer/groom Tom McCarthy. For those unfamiliar with the back story, General Quarters is McCarthy’s only charge, and has been since his unlikely claimer-to-Derby run last year. From just about every account, McCarthy is a kindly old man, and a former high school principal, who planned to ride General Quarters into retirement. It’s hard not to root for a guy like him, and I couldn’t have been happier to see his horse pull off the upset.
McCarthy was visibly emotional as he made his way to the winner’s circle to meet his horse. I spoke to him briefly before General Quarters made his way back to the grandstands, and he gave a model interview with great, meaningful quotes. He also provided an interesting twist when he revealed that jockey Robby Abarado, rider of second place Court Vision and former regular rider of the winner, was the one who suggested General Quarters try the turf. Now, I not only wanted to hug McCarthy because I was happy for his big win, but because he provided yet another great hook for the story. This race was what turf writing is all about.
I headed back to the press box licking my chops to turn in this story. Unfortunately, I had to keep it brief. The Woodford Reserve led into the Kentucky Derby, and this wouldn’t be a very fun story to tell if I spent the race locked away in the press box. With that said, I was very glad to have an hour and a half to get the story done, and finished with plenty of time to spare. My recap of the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic Stakes can be read here.
With that story turned in, it was time to focus on the big one. As the horses were led in front of the grandstand to the paddock, the steady rain that bogged down Loiusville the entire day gave way to blue skies and the clouds opened to reveal the sun. If Hollywood would have come up with such a scene, it would have been panned by critics for being too cheesy. However, even the most jaded race-goer could not criticize how nice it was to finally step out into the media balcony and not have to fight against the wind.
As some of my readers may recall, one of my stated goals for Kentucky Derby weekend was not to cry during the live rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home”. The song, played during the race’s post parade, is famous for causing patrons and participants to get overcome with emotion. In fact, trainer Bob Baffert was quoted this year claiming people who do not get at least misty-eyed during the song may lack a soul. Whatever the ramifications, I am proud to say I did not well up during the playing of the Stephen Foster-penned song. That’s not to say I did not struggle a bit. In that context, with everyone half-soberly singing along, the song is quite powerful. However, having tears on one’s eyes makes it difficult to aim a camera, so I sucked it up and stayed focused on the task at hand.
Like two out of the last three Kentucky Derbies before it, this year’s installment climaxed with Super Saver and jockey Calvin Borel getting an inch on the rail and taking a mile all the way to a blanket of roses. The sloppy track had made the rail a bog all day, so it is easy to understand why the competition would want to stay closer to the center of the track. But when facing a man whose legend is built by scraping his left stirrup with white paint, on a live horse nonetheless, it is surprising no one thought to seal that lane off.
Borel did not appear to have the same outpouring of jubilation he had when he won the race aboard Street Sense or Mine That Bird, but the ever-smiling Cajun was still animated in the saddle as he was led back before a roaring crowd. As a group in the press box watched the post-race action on a monitor, I posed the question of how many more of these Borel would have to win before Churchill Downs puts a statue of him in the paddock area next to the one of Pat Day. Someone suggested the track may someday put Borel’s monument in place of Day’s.
Through all the excitement, I realized I had hit the Derby exacta. It was only for a dollar to account for boxing multiple horses, but the payout was more than enough to put me in the black at the windows for the weekend.
The race was over. While many people in the grandstands were getting ready for the trip home, the night in the press box was just beginning. After a couple viewings of the replay, senior writer Frank Angst and I walked over to the backstretch to get quotes from the losing connections. I was assigned Paddy O’Prado, Noble’s Promise, Stately Victor, Dean’s Kitten, Lookin at Lucky, Conveyance, Backtalk, Homeboykris and Awesome Act.
This brings us to Surreal Moment #3 of the weekend. Somehow, a pretend journalist from the middle of nowhere, Michigan had been allowed on the backstretch of Churchill Downs after the most recognizable race in the world and he was about to get one-on-one face time with some of the biggest names in the profession. Whoa.
What really made it wild was how calm everything was. Media was sparse, as was security. If aliens were to land on the Churchill Downs backstretch, it would be hard to convince them that a major race had just been run.
Remember in my Oaks post when I said talking to Mike Maker in the paddock ended up paying dividends later? The trainer of Stately Victor and Dean’s Kitten (and Michigan native) was the first person I found on my scavenger hunt and was easily the best interview on the list. There is little doubt this was aided by our meeting the previous day. A hat tip goes to Ed DeRosa for that bit of advice and to Mr. Maker for being so accommodating.
My search continued, as I wandered the shedrows looking for trainers, while wearing shoes that were in no way designed to cover the expansiveness of the backstretch area (and yes, I can hear the female turf writing population saying “try doing it in heels.” I completely understand and sympathize with your predicament, but just let me have this one for today). Many were in their offices. Some showed up later. Some didn’t show up at all.
In the meantime, this afforded me time to take in the scenery and watch these horses I have seen on television and read about in magazines get cooled out and hosed down just the same as the cheap claimer in the stall next door. Walking by Nick Zito’s barn, I saw Jackson Bend’s #13 saddlecloth draped over a gate. Without even seeing the race, a lot could be known about the horse’s trip by the layer of mud that caked the already brown-colored blanket.
As a couple Associated Press reporters and I waited for Bob Baffert to return to his barn (he didn’t), we watched as post time favorite, and eventual Preakness Stakes winner, Lookin At Lucky had the last traces of dirt from his nightmare trip in the Derby washed off before being put away for the night. A group of well-dressed girls who happened to be wandering by posed for a picture about 15 feet in front of the champion two-year-old as he was receiving his bath and then left. I was rooting for the groom to “accidentally” spray them with the hose.
It took some time and some walking, but I finally got quotes from every barn on my list. The only major disappointment came when I left Rick Dutrow’s barn and realized he hadn’t called me “babe” once during the course of our interview. All things considered, I’m OK with this being the worst thing to happen during my time on the backstretch.
As the evening sunk into night, I made my way back to the press box to transcribe my notes and prepare to head back to the hotel for the night. After one last interesting bus ride back to the media lot with superstar freelancer Claire Novak, my Kentucky Derby weekend officially came to a close. Sleeping in the next morning never felt so good.
Attending and reporting on my first Kentucky Derby was an incredible experience. I am extremely grateful to the staff of Thoroughbred Times for allowing me the opportunity to pitch in on their coverage and for getting me places I would have never imagined I’d be only a few years ago. To those I met for the first time over the weekend, it was a pleasure to make your acquaintance. To friends I already knew, it was great to see you again. Finally, to those of you who have been following along with my tales about Derby weekend, thank you very much for reading and commenting. Hopefully you have gotten some enjoyment from my experience on one of the sport’s biggest stages. I sure know I did.
Behind the jump are some shots from the Kentucky Derby post parade.