After a couple days of hard driving, harder partying (for me, at least) and wandering around the Churchill Downs backstretch, it was time to get down to business.
My drive to Churchill Downs that morning was turning out to be a glorious one. The sun was shining, KISS was blaring from my Trailblazer’s speakers and thanks to the fancy new suit I had purchased for the occasion, I was looking very, very good.
This moment of transcendence was quickly derailed, however, when I realized I had left the headphones to my tape recorder back in my hotel room. Going without would not have spelled my doom for the day, but it would have made the simple procedure of transcribing far more difficult and likely quite grating for those around me. Every once in a while, I wonder to myself how I have made any progress at all in the turf writing business. Sometimes I can be really bad at the whole “journalist” thing.
I pulled onto the last exit in Indiana before crossing the bridge over the Ohio River into Kentucky. After a series of turns and on-ramps that required way too much effort to get turned around, I made a quick run back to my room and was on the road again.
Eventually, I made it to the media lot. For Derby weekend, the media is given a lot near the University of Louisville’s Papa John’s Football Stadium about a half mile away from the track and shuttled to the grandstand or backstretch. This brought us into Surreal Moment #2 of the weekend.
Members of the media were shuttled from the parking lot to the grandstand by a fleet of decommissioned school buses. This fact stood out on its own, considering I had not once ridden on a school bus in the five years since I graduated from high school. What put it into the surreal territory was being crammed in a school bus with some of the turf writers I grew up reading. In the same setting where I sat nervously waiting for a football game, I now eavesdropped as Mike Watchmaker reminiced about the glory days of the New Jersey racing circuit. It took longer than it should have for this to sink in.
The bus trips were always mildly terrifying for two reasons. First, to better control traffic (I would assume), the National Guard had shut down certain roads and turn lanes. Many of the drivers were apparently not informed of these blockages, which led to several unexpected detours, especially at night. Second, everyone on board seemed to have the vague sense that the driver might not know where he or she was going. I will restrain from being too critical, because I would have done an infinitely worse job, but people with more experience in Louisville than I seemed to agree that there were better, more efficient routes to take.
The bus ride into the track provided a few moments of calm before the storm to relax, look out the window and do some people-watching. As we drew closer to the property, more and more houses offered parking in their yards and driveways to overflow patrons who could not get into the track’s lots. Judging by the general property value of the houses providing this service, a motorist may have been safer parking in a fire lane, getting towed and having the impound lot serve as his or her valet.
After exiting the bus (those steps are smaller than I remember), I made my way through the ground floor and to the media elevator. The handy media pass that allowed me access to said elevator matched my suit, which seemed to excite only me. Shortly after setting up in the press box, I was approached by superstar freelancer Claire Novak, who wanted to do a brief feature about my first Derby weekend for her Youbet.com blog. Being the attention-starved person that I am, I jumped at the opportunity. I can not speak with certainty, but that may be the first time I have been quoted for a story where I was a more than a random “student on the street” for my college paper. Thanks to Claire for making that happen.
My assignments for the day were to cover the Kentucky Juvenile Stakes, the American Turf Stakes and gather some “scene” quotes from racegoers at Churchill Downs. On a personal level, I made it my business to be as close to the action as possible for the La Troienne Stakes, which featured 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra.
By the time the La Troienne came around, the crowd throughout the racetrack had become quite thick. At final count, this year’s Oaks had drawn a record crowd of 116,048. Whether it was the allure of the Oaks itself, the additional draw of a popular Horse of the Year or the impending storm heading toward Louisville the following day, people came in droves, which made it hard to get from place to place, and nearly impossible to do it in a hurry.
The only prior experience I had with shoulder-to shoulder crowds of this caliber was Keeneland Race Course. However, when the attendance figures are stacked up, Keeneland suddenly seems less claustrophobic. To compare, Keeneland is similar to going to one’s local music venue to see the J. Geils Band. It may be a little cramped, and some may be in varying levels of altered states, but everyone knows why they are there and what they are doing. On the other hand, Kentucky Derby weekend felt more akin to the Warped Tour. There were tons of distractions, patrons generally could not handle their alcohol and they had less regard for those around them (this will come into play later) but there were an awful lot of acts worth seeing.
It took some bobbing and weaving, but I finally managed to make my way into the paddock. Judging by the mob of people with less-than-professional cameras in the middle of the walking ring, my plan was not unique.
It became apparent that Rachel was approaching the vicinity by the ever-loudening sound of the crowd as she made the walk from the backstretch. A disappointed groan rolled through the paddock as each new horse was brought in who did not have two Eclipse Awards on her resume. Finally, the defending champ was led into the paddock to the sound of cameras clicking away from the several-deep crowd. One couple with pink shirts and interesting haircuts held high a sign that read, “We drove from Jersey to see Rachel.” It is good to see there are fans out there with dedication.
As Rachel was led out of the paddock with the ever-smiling Calvin Borel in the saddle, I rushed to the same spot I had stood when two-time Horse of the Year Curlin took the same path on his way to winning the 2008 Stephen Foster Handicap and got a couple shots.
The race, expected by most to be a fairly unchallenging victory for Rachel after a necessary tune-up race, did not quite go as planned. Rachel Alexandra was well placed, if a bit uncomfortably ridden, through the first turn and backstretch and appeared primed to pull away at the top of the stretch. However, she was joined by Unrivaled Belle, who engaged her throughout the straightaway and out-kicked the champion to win the race.
There was little time to reflect on the race, as my first assignment, the Kentucky Juvenile, was up next. As the first graded stakes race for two-year-olds in North America, there was little background to draw on for each horse – Mostly just their pedigree, their connections and by how many lengths they won their maiden effort.
The race was won in a fairly convincing manner by Dogwood Stable’s Lou Brissie. Aside from some brief trouble spotting winning trainer Neil Howard (when I cover a race, I tend to root for the Pletchers, Bafferts and Asmussens of the world because I can easily identify them), getting the story together went fairly smoothly. My recap of the Kentucky Juvenile can be read here.
Somewhere in all the commotion during the day, Ed and I found trainer Mike Maker in the paddock. As I have alluded to in previous posts, Maker is a Michigan native and got his start at the Detroit racetracks. So as not to blow any shred of professionalism I may have all to hell, I only briefly talked about being from Michigan with him. However, that face time may have ended up paying dividends later. More on that in the next installment.
The next race I was scheduled to cover was the American Turf Stakes. I lucked out when Todd Pletcher trainee Doubles Partner took the rail to victory. Pletcher, Gomez, no mystery. I spoke to both of them in the winner’s circle and tried my darndest to get everything done before the main event, the Kentucky Oaks, coming up next. The story on the American Turf can be found here.
For the Oaks itself, I assisted with gathering some quotes from the losing connections following the race. This meant getting to talk to the connections of Evening Jewel, who just had their hearts ripped out after Blind Luck staged one of her trademark screaming stretch runs to just get up at the wire by half a nose hair. Super.
Evening Jewel’s trainer, James Cassidy, went back to the barn with the horse, so that left me with jockey Kent Desormeaux. Understandably, he did not appear in the mood to talk. Fortunately, it’s hard to say “no” to a mob of reporters, so I got what I needed and headed back to the press box.
On my way there, I decided to grab one more interview for my “scene” quotes. I spotted a man who looked like he would provide some intelligent commentary and proceeded to ask him some questions. Remember what I said earlier about how Churchill Downs patrons typically appeared to be inconsiderate and bad at being drunk? My theory was soon proven accurate. As I conducted the interview and the man politely answered my questions, I heard the sound of glass breaking. Then I got very wet.
As I looked up to see what happened, I saw two frat-boy types in pink shirts (normally a distinguishing feature for idiot frat boys, but on pink-themed Oaks day, they were just two in the crowd) getting in each other’s faces. One was bleeding quite nicely from the back of the head. I quickly surmised that one had thrown a commemorative Kentucky Derby mint julep glass, still full apparently, at the other and we had been hit with the shrapnel.
The fellow I was interviewing completed the interview like a trooper and I got out of there before finding out what became of the two bozos. When I arrived back in the press box, I ran my hand through my hair and pulled out a mint leaf. My suit wreaked of alcohol for the remainder of the weekend. Fortunately, I had a backup.
After taking care of a few other tasks, Oaks day had come to a close. Ed, Sale Guru Emily and I then headed to a nearby Vietnamese restaurant where I had some decent General Tso’s Chicken and used the outside of a glass of water to relieve my sunburn, which I had acquired over the day.
Mint julep and sunburn issues aside, Oaks day was definitely a memorable one. However, there was not much time to sit back and reflect. I had to get back to the hotel, wash off the bourbon and get ready for the next day, because it was going to be big.
Behind the jump are some photos from Oaks day and the day of races that preceded it.