3:09 p.m. After some issues with the wireless connection, I am coming to you live from the makeshift Hoosier Park press box. I’ll be keeping you posted with check-ins, updates and photos for the rest of the Indiana Derby card, or until I get too busy to write stuff.
We are coming up on the eighth race, so here is a quick update of what has been going on so far…
– The rain has been heavy and steady through the afternoon. The apron is sparsely populated, but the grandstand is packed. That many people in a fairly tight space can generate a pretty good sound as the field comes down the stretch.
– Michigan trainer Bob Gorham has been on a tear today, with two stakes wins on the card already. He saddled Perfectly Candid to victory in the $84,000 Miss Indiana Stakes with Leandro Goncalves aboard. He then followed up by giving Fernando De La Cruz the leg up aboard Bellamy Jones in the Indiana Futurity. Gorham. Both are owned by Mast Thoroughbreds, LLC. The pair will send Shakaleena to the post in the Indiana Oaks (G2) later in the evening.
– The track classed up the restaurant area for the big day, and there is a silent auction near the entrance. The thing about racing industry silent auctions is they are normally conducted among the wealthy owners, so I get blown out of contention early. Still, some pretty nice stuff there.
– Wandering around the grandstand are, in no particular order: Hoosier Buddy, the Hoosier Park mascot, a jockey on stilts and a handstanding Charlie Chaplin impersonator. The latter is easily the most awesome. Because I am here for you, I will try to get photos of all three of these figures doing something awesome. So far, I am one for three…
Look for more check-ins as things get crazier. Until then, here are a couple more photos…Click to enlarge.
4:35 p.m. After nine races, I’m finally on the board. I hit the exacta in the Hoosier Breeders Sophomore Stakes for a respectable payout, largely thanks to a big stretch drive by Northern Candyride and rider Leandro Goncalves.
The sun has come out just in time for the big boy/girl races and the rain has slowed for the time being. Hopefully it lasts for the main event. The apron is becoming more and more populated as time goes on. I’ll be curious to see how full it gets.
Two down, one to go. I’m coming for you, Charlie Chaplin…
5:03 p.m. This is way more fun than I imagine my five-year high school reunion would have been. Just saying.
I just realized the tickets for Indiana Derby day feature a smiley face. Sometimes it’s the little things that count.
I was going to post a picture of Shakaleena in the paddock for the Indiana Oaks for regular commentator Ragman, but I just looked up at the simulcast feed and she has been scratched. Boo-urns.
The Indiana Oaks is up next. Until then, here are a couple more photos to tide you over.
6:47 p.m. Bob Baffert didn’t ship to the middle of Indiana to come home with anything less than two graded stakes wins. Fortunately, his charges held up their end of the bargain.
The California-based trainer took the first half of the Derby/Oaks double courtesy of a front-running trip by Always a Princess and jockey Martin Garcia.
I wanted to poke in between the big races to throw the Oaks photos up, but the crowd became so dense around the paddock for the upcoming Indiana Derby I knew I had to get down there or risk missing the whole thing.
The crowd was was easily five deep when I arrived, all to see Eclipse Award winner Lookin At Lucky. One particular fan holding a sign declaring herself “Lucky’s No. 1 Fan” drew the attention of owner Michael Pegram, who promised the girl a spot in the winner’s circle should his horse pull it off. That was cool. Racing needs more of that.
It took some elbowing, but I managed to get to the gate and into the paddock (with an assist to Claire Novak and Pegram). I then worked my way over to the grass island that became the refuge for turf writers and photographers…and pretend turf writers alike.
While Lookin At Lucky was the star of the show, St. Maximus Gato acted like he owned the crowd. The gray gelding from Calder Race Course posed for any lens that looked in his direction. This was his first big effort, but he looked more than ready.
I am still on the lookout for the Charlie Chaplin impersonator. I have crossed paths with him on several occasions, but every time I get my camera in place, he stops doing whatever cool thing he was doing. A picture of Charlie Chaplin just standing around is no good to any of us.
It’s time to go piss away my earnings in the casino. I’ll wrap it all up later tonight.
10:28 p.m. Okay, where were we?
The field made its way through the post parade, with Lookin at Lucky as the overwhelming favorite. I watched on from the winner’s circle with the press box contingent pictured somewhere above. Turf writers have the most interesting conversations. If you follow enough of them on Twitter, you likely know this first hand, because they love to quote one another when someone says something interesting or witty.
The race was mostly spent watching Lookin At Lucky get mud thrown in his face and wondering if and when he was going to make a move. Because I am a Michigan guy all the way, my inner Matt Hook was shouting “Lookin At Lucky needs to move and he needs to move now.” Lookin at Lucky was too wide, too far back and too covered with mud to make any noise at the top of the stretch, but he responded to jockey Martin Garcia’s urging and willed his way past Thiskyhasnolimit.
Meanwhile, St. Maximus Gato appeared primed to move up the rail and also overtake the leader. With a 6-9 exacta box ticket sitting in my pocket, this was a sight I was overjoyed to see. However, the part of the exacta that did not have an Eclipse Award on the mantle back home came up empty and finished third. Lookin at Lucky crossed the wire to win by a length.
As soon as the race concluded, the crowd packed the area around the winner’s circle even deeper than they had in the paddock. Camera shutters clicked for the also-rans, but became more frequent when the winner approached.
Pictures were taken, trophies were handed out, hugs were administered, then the media swarmed. First the TV networks got the winning connections, followed by the print media. As Baffert finished up with the TV crews, the reporters interviewed a still-muddy jockey Martin Garcia.
After Garcia was released from the media’s clutches, the swarm turned its attention on trainer Bob Baffert. Baffert, never at a loss for words smoothly fielded the questions. When asked if his charge had the chops to compete against super-mare Zenyatta in a potential Breeders’ Cup matchup, Baffert simply replied “Let’s find out.” Afterward, Baffert signed autographs and had pictures taken well after the last reporter left. I got tired of watching him sign programs before he got tired of signing them. It’s good to see a major horseman interact with the fans that came out to see him and his horse instead of treating the day like the smash-and-grab it ultimately was.
This is where I picked up in my previous update. Baffert got his two trophies and the fans went home happy – even moreso after Zenyatta’s routine miracle victory. That horse is magic.
I never again ran into the Charlie Chaplin impersonator after stating my goal in the last update. Take my word for it. He was awesome.
Following the races, my group splintered off and grabbed a bite to eat, then splintered off again. My now smaller group headed back to Hoosier’s casino. In my first spin of the slots, I hit for $15. This put me in a small moral dilemma. Do I quit after one spin like a badass, but sacrifice the rest of the night, or do I risk blowing it all just to keep my somewhat rare casino visit going for a while longer?
I didn’t feel like going back to my hotel just yet so I chose the latter. In the short term, it was a bad decision. I ended up losing most of it in a combination of unforgiving slots and a cruel roulette wheel. After finishing ahead of the game at Prairie Meadows, I really wanted to play blackjack, but the the tables never opened up. Just as I was thinking about calling it a night with less than I came, a Breeders’ Cup slot machine opened up. Within a few spins, I was back to $16 above my starting point. I love horse racing. With my bankroll back to where it was after my first spin, it was finally time to quit while I was ahead like a badass.
So what can we take away from all of this?
Saturday’s Indiana Derby was a prime example of what can happen when things go right for the industry. The crowd came out, despite the rather miserable weather, to see arguably the best three-year-old in the country who came to town to cash in on a purse infused with casino steroids. Money barreled through the betting windows, and later the casino. The champ came back a winner and everybody went home happy. The weather could have been nicer, but all things considered, the day had to be considered a success.
When I look at what Hoosier Park has done with the Indiana Derby, and the state’s program in general, I believe Michigan is capable of becoming something close to the same thing, assuming it is allowed the tools to do so. There was a time when Michigan and Indiana were on similar ground in terms of their racing industries. Then Indiana went in one direction and Michigan went another, far less pleasant way.
Granted, the competition, both economically and politically, of tribal and Detroit casinos may dilute the effectiveness of expanded gaming in Michigan, but even if it helped purses jump from mediocre to above average the state is better off than it was before. The Indiana Derby shows that the formula can work, and it gets more apparent with every horseman that leaves the state to see for themselves. Heck, they got me down there.
To quote Family Guy patriarch Peter Griffin: “Why aren’t we funding this?”
Thanks to everyone at Hoosier Park, the media war table, my traveling companion Niki and everyone else that made my first Indiana Derby an interesting one. I hope you enjoyed reading my thoughts and observations throughout the raceday and afterward. If I find myself at a major event and lacking something to occupy my time again, perhaps this might become a regular thing. But we’ll burn that bridge when we cross it.