Category Archives: Racetrack Visits

Opening day 2011 at Mount Pleasant Meadows

Opening day at Mount Pleasant Meadows was the climax of a roller coaster year for the central Michigan track. Porsche Pink is led to the winner's circle with Nate Alcala aboard.

On the track’s Aug. 1 closing day last year, the idea of Mount Pleasant Meadows hosting Michigan’s lone Thoroughbred meet seemed outlandish.

A lot can happen in a year.

The central Michigan racetrack’s July 24 opening day was last stop of a roller coaster offseason that included the shuttering of Pinnacle Race Course and months of “Will they? Won’t they?” tension as the state, the track and the horsemen all worked to get on the same page.

The pressure went down to the wire, as the Michigan Gaming Control Board balked on approving Mount Pleasant’s live meet until just days before it was scheduled to commence. Once the paperwork got signed, the gears got turning – and with little time to spare, they got turning fast.

Since Mount Pleasant called it a meet last year, I have been to more racetracks around the country than I can count on two hands. At no point was I more genuinely excited for a day of racing than I was for this year’s opening day.

By the time the horses came over for the first race, I could hardly contain my giddiness, and it lasted throughout the card. The tension that built up with every event that made it look like the place would never host another race had finally come uncoiled. This feeling could have also been due in no small part to mild dehydration, but it was still pretty amazing, nonetheless.

I have been watching and playing the races at Mount Pleasant for years, but for the first time since I first picked up a program, I had absolutely no idea how the races were going to shake out. Would the native horses and riders have a home-track advantage until the new ones figured out the four furlong bullring? Would class prevail regardless of the racing surface? Would horses and bloodlines that succeeded at five-furlong Great Lakes Downs recapture the magic? Would the horses bred for Pinnacle be able to adapt? As it turns out, the answer for just about all of these questions was “yes.” Every bettor on the grounds was on a level playing field, and it was an exciting time.

The best thing about opening day was, without a doubt, getting to see everyone in the same place – Thoroughbred people, Quarter Horse people, Arabian people and other fellow racing enthusiasts. Mount Pleasant is a very communal track, and that spirit was not lost on its new residents. I was glad to see this.

The crowd was robust – easily double the average attendance, if not more. I have never been good at eyeball estimating a crowd, so whenever I want to gauge the attendance at Mount Pleasant, I look out at the parking lot. On a normal day, the cars usually make two rows. On this day, they made four very long rows. It was kind of beautiful.

But enough talk, lets look at some pictures…

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Preaking Out – Part 1: The Beginning

The days of Lookin At Lucky's colors adorning the Pimlico Race Course weather vane were numbered in the days prior to the Preakness Stakes.

If “The Hangover” series of films taught the world anything, it’s that the best parties are the ones that take weeks to get your life back together afterward.

As arguably the biggest party on the racing calendar, the events surrounding the 2011 Preakness Stakes could definitely find themselves in that conversation.

This is the excuse I’m going with to explain my dithering in writing my Preakness weekend retrospective. When you’re running with the Wolfpack, there isn’t always time to write.

It took a grand total of 17 hours on the road to get from Michigan to Baltimore, factoring in a detour to Lexington to carpool the rest of the way with Thoroughbred Times editor Ed DeRosa. I was working as something of a utility man for the publication during the Preakness and the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale that followed.

After a trip through eastern Kentucky, West Virginia (which reminds me of Montana if everyone was really into pollution) and western Maryland, we arrived in Baltimore a few hours before the Preakness post position draw.

This trip marked my first visit to Pimlico Race Course, and Maryland in general, so the track layout was uncharted territory on my internal map. Fortunately, the first sight that fell before me as I walked on the property was the Preakness stakes barn. All of the horses shipping in to run in the Preakness were under one roof. After spending the aftermath of last year’s Kentucky Derby roaming Churchill Downs’ expansive backstretch seeking quotes from connections, a barn like this was a boon for a lazy journalist such as myself. What a beautiful building it was.

The plant itself was not quite as beautiful. Pimlico has typically gotten a bad rap for not aging well, and it is not entirely unwarranted. The facilities had definitely seen better days, even after the obligatory “Preakness Cleanup”.

Perhaps the biggest indicator of this was the media elevator, which used technology that probably pre-dated anyone on the grounds. It didn’t smell the best, either, but employees seemed to blame a fresh coat of paint for that. Personally, I have never experienced a paint with that particular odor, but it made me feel sorry for the elevator attendant.

The elevator led to the press box on the top floor. More so than Churchill Downs or Keeneland Race Course (I haven’t worked in a lot of press boxes, okay?), the Pimlico box is the closest I have come to what the average person might imagine a racetrack press box to be – rows upon rows of desks pointing toward nothing in particular, where everybody is within shouting distance and nothing is shiny. If one removed the HDTVs from the walls and replaced the laptops with typewriters, it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to assume the reporters were covering a race decades ago instead of in the present day.

Initially, I was a little turned off by the press box. Mind you, I am a small track guy, so it was not that it wasn’t “nice” enough. Where I come from, we don’t even have press boxes. I was just underwhelmed for a track hosting one of the world’s most important races. However, once I figured out what parts of the desks to avoid, lest I get splinters, I eventually learned to embrace the Pimlico media room. By the end of the weekend, I even grew to like it a bit. Further proof that I should never trust my first impression on anything.

Prior to the Preakness draw, I headed back to the stakes barn to film any potential contenders that should arrive as they exit their trailers. The best I could find was the trailer of D. Wayne Lukas, who had fringe contender Saratoga Red. Barring some kind of major surprise, the horse wasn’t going to draw into the race, so he wasn’t a terribly high priority.

As the Lukas horses unloaded, the trainer came over and chatted with the members of the media waiting outside his barn. He spun a tale to them about a time when he was not allowed in the paddock of a major racetrack (which I choose to remain unnamed to protect everyone involved) after handing out all of his paddock passes. Apparently, some security guards don’t recognize a hall-of-fame trainer when they see one.

After Lukas headed on his way, I checked my phone and saw that the draw was about to start, so I hi-tailed it to the infield.

I had my camera in tow from this point on, so I’m going to let the pictures do the talking. The rest of the story can be found behind the jump…

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Under the lights at Sam Houston Race Park

Sam Houston Race Park takes advantage of its strengths as well as any mid-level track. Shotgun Willis is led in front of the grandstand on his way to the paddock.

Sam Houston Race Park had been on my radar as a priority track to visit for quite some time.

The track’s repeated Gallery Furniture-sponsored overtures to pit the two hot horses of the moment against one another showed the willingness of the mid-sized track to make a splash on the national scene.

Nobody ever bit on the offer, but you’ve gotta love a track with moxie.

The evening at Sam Houston concluded day one of the festivities surrounding the weekend’s Darley Awards – Arabian racing’s version of the Thoroughbred breed’s Eclipse Awards. Consistent with the theme of the weekend, the evening’s dual feature was a pair of Arabian stakes races.

The first, and most defining feature of Sam Houston is its lighting – from the stadium track lighting that can be seen well before the rest of the property comes into view, to the inside of the plant itself, which was lit like a shopping mall. Of the tracks I have visited that host a significant night racing schedule, Sam Houston may be the best illuminated.

Having left Detroit that morning in the midst of sleet weather, the comfortable Houston temperatures put me in a very good mood. A big smile came across my face as I passed through the turnstile. I was in a strange city at a new track. The sky was dark, the lights were bright and the breeze was warm. Yes, this is what it means to be alive.

Admission was free for me, as I had a free pass with the group of Arabian enthusiasts. Upon further inspection on the track’s website, general admission is $6. Kind of steep. Programs were $2, and were made of good quality white paper.

The Sam Houston plant is a very large structure, with at least two sets of escalators. Nooks and crannies were plentiful, with some even offering specialties like Greyhound racing (In retrospect, I wish I would have picked up a simulcast program just to see what Greyhound past performances look like). Business was good enough on that particular Friday night that most of the alcoves had at least a small population.

The ground floor offered bars for the parched horseplayer, but I found most of the major food stands on the second floor. My group had arrived at the conclusion of the third race, and I had not eaten since that morning in Detroit, so I found the nearest hamburger stand (or in this case, a barbecue stand that offered hamburgers) and scarfed one down. The burger was ok to average, but considering the above circumstances, I am willing to award an incomplete grade.

The second floor is a testament to the track’s friendliness to new fans. The track has decorated the walls above the mutuel windows with a glossary of horse racing terms. Basic betting, racing and horse lingo was laid out like it should be in any program worth its salt. Do 90% of the fans in attendance already know just about everything on that wall? Sure. But for that 10% who are standing in line still deciding for whom they want to vote, that information could prove invaluable.

After our in-between-race meal, my group found its way to the grandstand seating. The crowd was good-sized, which is no small feat in a plant of that magnitude (no doubt aided by the 50 cent draft beer and $1.50 wine on Friday nights).

Looking out over the track brought two things to the immediate forefront. First, the track is really good at drawing advertisers. Banners and billboards of various sponsors – with varying levels of local and national recognition and involvement in racing – could be found on the apron, in the paddock, on the rail, beside the tote board and behind the backstretch. As much of an eyesore as that sounds, it was actually arranged to look rather professional. Second, from where we were seated, the auxiliary chute inside the turf course provided an almost head-on view of the break in races that warranted using it. It was a perspective many tracks do not offer.

As the horses entered the gate for the fourth race, what occurred next will stick with me as long as I care about how a racetrack presents itself. When the “minutes to post” number hit zero, the lights dimmed in the grandstand like a movie theater about to play the previews. The buzz that ran through the crowd when this happened was something that I had never seen for an otherwise run-of-the-mill maiden race. It was almost Pavlovian, and it carried on through to the race. It got loud when the field approached the wire – louder than Hoosier Park on last year’s Indiana Derby day, where most of the crowd came inside to seek refuge from the rain – almost “cover your ears” loud. Again, in a grandstand of that magnitude, this was no small feat.

Perhaps this is the secret to horse racing’s never-ending quest to crack the “new fan” demographic – psychological reactions. Clearly, nobody is going anywhere just because of some dim fluorescent lightbulbs, but those dim bulbs tell people that something is going down and it is time to be excited. All attention is turned to the starting gates. If the decades-long success of the laugh track proves anything, it is that if they are already in the seats, people will get excited if you tell them to get excited. If we, as an industry, can find a way to harness these natural reactions, we might be on to something.

Anyway, I hit my first bet on Texas soil – a 5-1 shot that fell to 5-2 by post time. It would also be the last bet I hit on Texas soil. Fortunately, I like to bring home a ticket from each track as a souvenir, so that is not an entirely bad thing.

After a couple races in the grandstand, I decided to venture out on my own and explore the facility. First stop was the paddock. It was a fairly simple stalls and connected walking ring setup behind the grandstand. Horses entered and left by going around the plant.

When the horses emerged at the front of the grandstand to meet the awaiting ponies, they had to pass by a section of the apron. This provided some entertainment as the night wore on and the 50 cent drafts accumulated. A group of guys had gathered by the path and asked each entry arguably the most important question in handicapping, “You gonna win, number five?”, “You gonna win, number six?”, and so on. Most of the riders carried on with their business without paying much mind to the group on the other side of the fence, but when one rider near the end of the procession was asked the question, he turned to them, flashed a smile and thrust his arm out with a resounding thumbs up. This got a huge reaction from the gathering on the apron. The horse didn’t win.

Out front, the track was elevated a few feet off the rather expansive apron. Separating the masses from the running surface was a dirt path where horses were led from the barn area to the paddock without interfering with the horses unsaddling on the track. It was a novel idea, but there was one drawback. The elevated track, along with the walking path, meant the outside rail was prominently placed in the line of sight. Aside from the general difficulty of photographing a speeding horse at night without the benefit of flash photography, the rail made composing a good on-track photo difficult-to-impossible.

The Arabian stakes races kicked off with the seventh race – the Texas Yellow Rose Stakes. Headlining this heat was multiple stakes winner Sanddpiper, who would take home the Darley Award for top three-year-old female the following evening. Very rarely does a horse strike me with that indefinable “It Factor” on first sight, but Sanddpiper has it. The gray Burning Sand filly is incredibly photogenic – definitely not to the “camera aware” level of a Zenyatta, but still pretty good. Her sloped nose gives Sanddpiper the distinct look of an Arabian that makes her stand out from the crowd. Plus, she wins a lot, which never hurts. If I were given the task of selecting Arabian horses to market to a national audience, I would choose Grilla, based on the exposure from his big win last year at Keeneland Race Course, and Sanddpiper. Sanddpiper kept up her end of the deal with a dominant 8 1/2 length score in the Texas Yellow Rose.

After a Thoroughbred buffer race in between, the field arrived at the paddock for the Texas Six Shooter Stakes. The race was another blowout affair, this time by Darley Award nominee T M Fred Texas, who won by seven lengths.

There were signs throughout the grandstand providing a number to text for information regarding the movement toward slots in Texas. Like Michigan, the state is surrounded by racino-enabled jurisdictions and is suffering because of it. Regardless of where one stands on the issue of slots as a long-term solution to racing’s ailments, it is no stretch of the imagination to say that Sam Houston is one of the most natural fits for adjacent gaming I have seen.

Sam Houston Race Park appears to have grown itself the right way. The fields are as ample as the attendance, the track setup is well-designed and the marketing efforts and fan experience are superb. With an infusion of that sweet, sweet slots money at Sam Houston, there would be no stopping it.

I’m pulling for them. You’ve got to root for a track that works hard.

Behind the jump are photos from the evening at Sam Houston Race Park.

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Photo of the Year: 2010

This photo of Zenyatta and super-skilled photographer Jamie Newell is probably the photo of the year, but for the sake of competition, it gets a free pass.

As it was mentioned in previous discussions, 2010 was a big year.

I visited a lot of places, I took a lot of pictures, I’ve seen a million faces and I rocked ’em all.

Okay, perhaps that last line is a wee bit exaggerated, but two and a quarter years of operation on this site is too long to go without a Bon Jovi reference.

The first two parts of the statement, however, are completely true. The last year afforded me the opportunity to visit racing venues and big events around the country, and I have tried my best to bring my readers along for the ride with my tales and photos.

That brings us to the annual display of my favorite memories from those travels: The 3rd Annual Michigan-Bred Claimer Photo of the Year poll.

Truth be told, my best photo is all but certainly the one shown above of super-skilled photographer Jamie Newell and Zenyatta the morning after the Breeders’ Cup Classic, titled “Consolation”. That projection is supported by the photo’s third-place showing in the Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance photo contest. If I have not said it before, allow me to take this opportunity to thank everyone kind enough to throw a vote my way. We’ll get ’em next year.

For the sake of competition, we’ll consider that one the winner by default and conduct the poll as usual to determine a reserve champion. Unlike the TBA contest, this is one vote I can’t lose.

All of the photos included in this poll were shot with a Kodak EasyShare Z980.

Thank you all for reading, commenting, voting and otherwise being a part of what was a huge 2010. I look forward to providing a front row seat to my adventures in 2011 and beyond.

Behind the jump are the 20 photos I have handpicked as my favorites of 2010. Have a look, then vote for your favorite in the poll on the left side of the page. Comments are always welcome, too.

And now, without further ado…

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Breeders’ Cup Mercenary Song – Part 3: The Aftermath

Saturday's race may be the moment history will remember, but the day after is when the real magic happened. The blanket of flowers draped over Blame following his Breeders' Cup Classic victory hang outside his barn.

Over the last couple Breeders’ Cup posts, the recurring theme has been my standing as a lucky son of a gun.

Evidence of this fact was apparent throughout Breeders’ Cup weekend, but at no time was it more clear than on Sunday, the day after the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The day started around 7:30 a.m. on the Churchill Downs backstretch. It was not warm.

A cold haze had settled over the track as horses headed out for their morning jogs or back to their barns – not quite frost and not quite fog, with a dash of spray from hoses cleaning up the ground near the barns.

I nodded to the backstretch guard as I walked by like I owned the place. After covering three major events at Churchill Downs, the power-drunkenness of having the proverbial skeleton key has yet to wear off.

After some wandering, I came across superstar freelancer Claire Novak and super-skilled photographer Jamie Newell loitering around the barn of trainer Al Stall, Jr.. I’d be lying if I said the Breeders’ Cup Classic-winning trainer’s barn was anything close to abuzz following his charge Blame’s epic victory in the previous day’s race. A few reporters filed in and out of Stall’s office for interviews while another group congregated around the stall of the victorious horse. The blanket of flowers that hung from Blame’s withers following his big win now sat idly on a security barrier, drawing little attention. If I really wanted to, I probably could have made off with it and gotten a few hundred yards before getting tackled by security, but I was on the clock.

As Jamie snapped photos of Claire with the newly retired colt, I overheard someone say Stall was soon to be bound for a plane to New Orleans. As Stall was one of the people I had to interview that day, this suddenly boosted my urgency to around Defcon 3 (I am not sure whether the Defcon scale goes up or down, but three sounds like a number that would be somewhere in the middle).

Shortly after this revelation, Stall emerged from his office and chatted with the people gathered around the horse. As he left that group, I hopped over the ravine that separates the barns from the middle area, flashed my media credential and asked for a chat. We spoke about Blame’s big win, what it meant to him, the horse’s future and the potential of reloading for next year with Ack Ack winner Apart. I knew he had a plane to catch, so I tried not to hold him for too long and let him go on his way with everything I needed.

As I alluded to earlier, the scene was eerily quiet for a barn that just won a race worth two and a half times as much as the Kentucky Derby and beat arguably the best, or at least the most beloved, horse of the last five years, if not longer. In total, I do not recall there being many more than 20 people around the Stall barn at any one time, including myself, security and the trainer’s employees.

Why the lack of fanfare for the colt who could very well end up being named Horse of the Year? Remember that beloved horse from the previous paragraph? Her going away party was in progress just a few barns over.

When I got to Barn 41, a pair of healthy crowds had formed around that horse, some readers may know her as Zenyatta, and her trainer John Shirreffs. The human subject was answering questions outside the barn while his star charge grazed in a nearby grassy area. Shirreffs kept an even keel with his responses considering he missed out on just a little under $2 million by a head. However, after the ride Team Zenyatta has had over the last three years, there was plenty to be proud of.

After Shirreffs wrapped things up, the media types migrated from the barn to the half circle surrounding the champion mare. Compared to the roughly 20 people in the vicinity of Blame’s stall, it would not be hard to venture an eyeball guess of 150 fans, horsepeople, media workers and other interested parties came and went throughout the morning.

Zenyatta’s patch of grass was next to the fence separating the backstretch from urban Louisville. Whether word got out that the mare would be making an appearance that morning or fans just regularly camped out near her barn hoping she would grace their presence, they showed up en masse for Zenyatta’s sendoff.

The fans on the outside looking in crammed against the fence and stuck their fingers and camera lenses through the chain link fence in hopes of getting a brush with the champion or offer her a peppermint (which the horse’s groom surprisingly allowed her to partake). So many cars lined the sidewalk that photographers trying to capture the enormity of it all couldn’t fit them all in the shot.

The give and take between Zenyatta and her separated fans was something to behold. The crowd oohed and giggled at every toss of the mare’s head and poke of her hoof. In return, Zenyatta looked out at the crowd and appeared to make eye contact with each and every one of them. Not to sink too deep into simile, but it was like when the entire section of a concert hall thinks a rock star is singing a song just for them. Whether was inquisitiveness, friendliness or an ego the size of Idaho, Zenyatta repeatedly tugged her groom, Mario Espinoza over to the fence to visit with the masses.

On my side of the fence, a flurry of cameras clicked and snapped, from professionals with foot-long lenses to people with camera phones. Because I wanted to maintain a shred of professionalism during my time on the backstretch, I decided to leave my camera in the car, not knowing this was going to turn into such a love-fest.

The blob of credentialed individuals shifted as Zenyatta decided to try new patches of grass to chomp or examine something that captured her attention. That movement was instigated by the nearby security, both uniformed and personal to the horse.

While we were shuffled back to make way for the mare, Claire informed me that Zenyatta’s personal security guy had previously worked for such popular figures as Jennifer Lopez and Tom Petty. How one goes from overseeing international musical artists to livestock is beyond me, but all three remain alive and uninjured, so clearly he is good at what he does.

Before he left, Shirreffs walked out to meet his star pupil to the sound of more furious camera clicks. To borrow a phrase from author Malcolm Gladwell, this was the tipping point from “look” to “touch”. Soon, people who looked like they had some kind of connection with the connections gathered around the horse to nuzzle her nose, pat her neck and pose for a photo op. For a horse that appears so fearsome when she struts from paddock to post, Zenyatta was surprisingly gentle with the strange people, including small children.

After the people who looked like they may have had ties with the horse filed out, Zenyatta was greeted by some higher-ranking members of the group surrounding her – the ones who had been dealing with the mare from the beginning – most notably HRTV analyst Zoe Cadman.

At this point, people started getting brave.

People in the blob began asking Zenyatta’s security guard for a photo op, and soon enough, a queue was formed. There were plenty of exceptions, but the order of visitation was largely parallel to the unwritten totem pole of racing media types. I don’t know what belittling title Ray Paulick would give my status in the turf writing community, but I knew I had no business demanding to be anywhere near the front of the line.

The encounters with Zenyatta ran the gamut of emotions, from joy to awe to tears. This horse meant different things to different people, and after such an emotional final race, it all came pouring out outside of Barn 41. Watching it all unfold with so many of the friends I had made during my short time in the professional turf writing community was the mother of all “lucky son of a gun” moments.

Meanwhile, I began to face a significant personal dilemma. Arguably the most photogenic horse on the planet was right in front of me mugging it up for any piece of curved glass within a half mile radius and my camera was in my car on the other side of the backstretch. I could have gone and grabbed it, but risked her being put away and missing what was sure to be a dramatic farewell; or I could have stayed there and taken it all in, but had nothing to show for it, save for other people’s pictures. My photographic memory stinks. I booked it.

As I power walked through the shedrows, I glanced over at Blame’s barn. Compared to the scene I just left, it was a ghost town. Who says money can buy popularity?

Fortunately, the only thing I missed was a few more fans getting to meet the mare of the hour. Now that several of us in our little group were wielding cameras, we each handed off our equipment to whomever was not currently behind a lens before getting in line for a multi-pronged photo assault.

While we watched the legion of lanyard-wearers file to and from Zenyatta, we were joined by the most perfectly-timed backstretch tour van in the history of Churchill Downs. I was far from the only lucky son of a gun on the backstretch that day.

After watching enough others get their brush with greatness, I finally worked up the nerve to get in line. It was a bit of a wait, and it took some effort to remind the security guard that I was in line in the middle of the commotion, but I finally got to the front.

I wish I could say I was blown away by the monster mare’s physical presence, but I deal with Belgian Draft Horses back home, so big horses are kind of par for the course. However, the ones back home weren’t nearly as smooth to the touch as Zenyatta. When I got to pet Funny Cide during my visit to Ellis Park last year, I considered finding a container to save the gelding’s hair that had accumulated on my hand. That was not an issue with Zenyatta.

After that initial pat on the neck, I felt in a bit of an awkward position. While this was unquestionably the “Tell the Grandkids” moment that I was striving for in my Thoroughbred Times TODAY postcards, I was not sure what else to do but pet her on the neck. While everyone else had done everything short of hop on her back and shout “Giddy Up”, the thought lingered that I would be the one to accidentally trigger something that sets her off. I’ve seen what those front hooves can do. With so many cameras pointed in my direction, it would have been a moment that would live in infamy.

So I stood there and stroked her neck while repeating the only phrase that came to mind at the moment, “Nice mare.” Smooth.

Soon enough, my turn was over and it was time to congeal back into the blob.

The festivities continued for another 20 minutes or so before Zenyatta was taken back to her barn. She was given a farewell of cheers and applause, which brought a look of mild panic to the faces of her handlers, who implored the crowd to tone it down. When the noise made it through the cotton ball barriers and into her eardrums, the docile mare who just shared a calm, tender moment with everyone in a quarter-mile radius turned into the aggressive, front-hoof-striking warrior of legend. She strutted her stuff and gave her handler the business until she disappeared into the shedrow.

The moral of the story? To turn Bruce Banner into the Incredible Hulk, all you have to do is believe and clap very hard.

The crowd stuck around for a little while to collect their thoughts and perhaps wait for an encore, but they eventually dispersed.

After the love fest reached its conclusion, I took one last stroll around the backstretch and out to the rail for a glimpse at the massive Churchill Downs grandstand. In a few moments, I would be on its sixth floor writing about everything I just saw.

Following all the commotion of Saturday’s Classic card, Sunday’s press box population was sparse. My worktab consisted of a postcard for TODAY and a “morning after” update on Blame, which is where the interview with Stall came into the equation. The deadlines were lax, the weather was getting warmer and when I felt like a break was in order, a day’s worth of races were waiting for me on the other side of the balcony door. This day just kept getting better.

My first story in the tank was the one on Blame, which can be read here.

Shortly after I turned that story in and started chipping away at the postcard, I saw out of the corner of my eye a congregation of people with recorders or steno pads in hand surrounding a guy who looked pretty important. Then I heard that pretty important guy, otherwise known as head steward John Veitch, talk about punishments for the Calvin Borel/Javier Castellano fight. I grabbed my recorder and joined the group.

After gathering the necessary information, I asked around to see if anyone at the Thoroughbred Times office already had the same info and was working on the story. As it turns out, I had something of a scoop, so I can add “breaking news” to the skills on my resume. That story can be read here.

I wrapped up my postcard and sent it in shortly after that, finishing my official duties as a Thoroughbred Times mercenary. I was once again a civilian abusing a media pass. At this point, the feeling was akin to a winning football team taking a knee at the end of the game. It was time to soak it all in for one last time knowing I was in the clear.

For the card’s feature, Claire (who was pitching a story about the morning’s Zenyatta-Con to ESPN: The Magazine and did a better job of describing it over the phone than I just did in 2,000 words) and I took the elevator down to enjoy the the race from ground level. We took one of my signature “set the timer and run” photos by the Breeders’ Cup statue in the paddock and spent our walk through the tunnel debating which of us was the luckier son (or daughter) of a gun.

Soon, the day’s races had come to an end, and so had my Breeders’ Cup weekend. A better writer than myself would insert a sentence or two here pulling together the roller coaster of events, emotions, celebrities, stages and shedrows that those five days were – but condensing it all down into that would be doing it an injustice. You just had to be there, and I am a lucky son of a gun for having been there.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Thoroughbred Times for allowing me to contribute to their coverage of the Breeders’ Cup and letting me tag along to access people and places that I will be telling others about for a long time to come. I would also like to thank all the friends – old, new or just new in person – that I crossed paths with at one point or another during the whole ordeal. Let’s all do it again sometime. Deal?

Behind the jump are some shots of Zenyatta’s going away party, including photographic evidence that I am not making this all up.

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Breeders Cup Mercenary Song – Part 2: The Races

Zenyatta is surrounded by handlers, media and security before the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

The band was packed up, the Grey Goose ice statues were melted and the school buses were rumbling. It was time for business.

As it was on Kentucky Derby weekend, the day started in the parking lot of Papa John’s Stadium, about a mile away from Churchill Downs. I have come to cherish the school bus ride to the track for two reasons. First, it is the proverbial calm before the storm. The ride to the grandstand is one last chance to collect my thoughts, look over the day’s program and make one last futile attempt to calm the hell down. Second, it allows me to eavesdrop on members of the turf writing community whom I would never hear speak off the cuff otherwise.

My assignments for the day were the Ack Ack Handicap on the undercard and the Juvenile Fillies for the website and TODAY. I was also slated to write the postcard for the daily publication, a more personalized look at the weekend’s events – almost like a blog post. I had known about the last item for a few days, so I already had it in the tank and ready to go.

The card was scheduled for a late start to ensure the marquee races would be run under the lights, meaning I had some time to take care of a little business in the press box – namely, printing out souvenir Zenyatta win tickets and chatting with some nearby friends in the turf writing community before things got crazy. Not only was I in the Churchill Downs press box, but people knew me and wanted to converse with me. I even managed to spread the good word about Michigan racing. It was not long ago that the events in this paragraph would have been unthinkable. To reiterate a point made in a previous post, lucky son of a gun.

Friday’s stakes program started out with the very strong Jimmy V. “Don’t Give Up…Don’t Ever Give Up!” Stakes, including several horses with a presence on this year’s Kentucky Derby trail. Then, it was time for the Ack Ack.

For the race, I decided to take advantage of my media privileges and watch the horses saddle in the paddock. I always feel a bit uncomfortable in the paddock during big race days because the racing networks and in-house feed have the grassy area in the middle staked out like gold miners claiming land. Wandering around the center of the walking ring put me at risk of getting into someone’s shot in front of the camera, or tripping over a wire behind it. Fortunately, I managed to avoid catastrophe on either side.

While most media types use the time in the paddock to pay attention to the horses and connections, I often found myself looking out in the opposite direction at the crowd. I enjoyed a vantage point that many on the other side of the fence may never see. Truth be told, it was a little claustrophobic. The paddock is a few feet below ground level, and when the crowd around it runs several people deep, it can appear rather imposing.

My irrational fears aside, it was always interesting to see how the crowd reacted to each horse and rider as they passed by on their way to the tunnel. True to form, Calvin Borel was the one to elicit the most response from those on the rail, who serenaded him with a “let’s go get ’em, Calvin” or a “Bo-rel”. All the while, the Cajun just smiled and fiddled with his chinstrap.

The Ack Ack was won by Apart, a stablemate of top-tier older male Blame. After the horse was photographed, unsaddled and sent on his way back to the barn, trainer Al Stall, Jr. answered questions for the media. The Ack Ack set in motion a big weekend for the Stall barn.

After getting the information I needed, I ran back up to the press box with superstar freelancer Claire Novak, who was working on the track’s notes team. I’d like to say I was being a good fullback and opening up the holes, but it turns out she was in a much bigger hurry than I was. When one can weave through the crowd with Barry Sanders-like grace and agility, there is no need for a fullback.

As I worked on the story for the Ack Ack, the Breeders’ Cup card kicked off with the Marathon. The race was one of little fanfare, and no wagering interest to myself, so I decided to stay inside and bang out the recap.

And then from the press box arose such a clatter.

I looked up at the TV screen in time to see the Churchill Downs winner’s circle transform into a scene from the Jerry Springer Show, starring a red-faced Calvin Borel grabbing a hold of Javier Castellano and giving him one of the most terrifying stares I have seen in life or film. The video does a better job explaining the situation than I can, but it was indeed a bizarre experience. Over the weekend, the question of where you were and what you saw during the melee became a popular one around Churchill Downs.

A few races later, ESPN ran a delightfully awkward pre-taped feature on Borel, showcasing his happy demeanor and near-invincibility at Churchill Downs. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a rip on Borel. I think he’s still one of the best ambassadors the sport has got, but you’ve got to appreciate the irony in the situation. You’ve also got to appreciate the drinking game that could have easily been formed by the network’s constant replaying of the incident.

Oh, and here is my Ack Ack story.

As much as it kills the narrative, the rest of Friday was kind of a blur. When the first race is literally a punch in the mouth, everything following it can kind of lose its pop.

What I do remember is looking out over the grandstands, being very cold and noticing an anomaly exclusive to the Louisville track. Friday’s race card drew over 41,000 fans, enough to choke just about any other track in the country, and the grandstands still looked sparsely populated. The sheer massiveness of the Churchill Downs plant had swallowed up a Breeders’ Cup crowd and made it look like a Wednesday afternoon.

After wrapping up my story on Awesome Feather’s victory in the Juvenile Fillies, I decided to watch the night’s main event, the Ladies Classic, on the ground level and grab some quotes. The thing I liked the most about the Breeders’ Cup was that the average IQ of the fans in attendance was miles ahead of their Kentucky Derby counterparts. Blame it on the weather, the less distinguished tradition or the lack of an infield scene, but the crowd was largely friendly, courteous and not there just to pound brews and fight someone. It’s the little things like that that make it so much easier to come down from the press box.

I watched the Ladies Classic in the grandstand near the winner’s circle. It was an exciting installment of the race, with Unrivaled Belle holding off a late-charging Blind Luck. A fun fact I just realized is these two horses both won races on the 2010 Kentucky Oaks card. Unrivaled Belle upset Rachel Alexandra in the La Troienne Stakes and Blind Luck won the main event.

As I watched the horses unsaddle, I wondered to myself how Life At Ten had finished. I have never been a huge fan of hers so I did not expect to see her on the board, but I did not recall Life At Ten even being a factor in the race. Only when I returned to the press box did I find out the horse had been the subject of some controversy and was through quite early. Through one day of Breeders’ Cup action, there were two major newsworthy events and I missed them both. Nobody said I was good at this.

After the races concluded, I met up with some members of teams Thoroughbred Times and Daily Racing Form, along with a Part-Time Racing Blogger to eat an excellent pork loin at a restaurant whose name I do not recall in downtown Louisville. Then I went back to my hotel for the night.

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Saturday started on the school bus, the same as the day before. I spent the bulk of the bus trip talking with fellow Thoroughbred Times-associated mercenary John Scheinman about catching up with old friends and longshots in the Sprint. At the end of the day, I realized I had run out of business cards, so I gave him another one of my Mount Pleasant Meadows golf pencils (I take ’em everywhere) and told him to Google it. At the time, I thought I still held on to my position as the search engine’s top result when searching for the track. Shortly after making the claim, I checked again and found out I had fallen to the third result. Close enough.

The day started earlier than the last with the hopes of getting the Classic off at a decent time. With a few more marquee races to cover, my workload picked up to three races – The Sprint, Juvenile and Turf.

Though the weather was more tolerable than the day before, it was still very much jacket weather. This created an interesting phenomenon that turned the seating areas into a sea of black.

I have never been much for spoon-fed foreshadowing. It’s a trick used by lazy creative writing students to score points with their professors. With that said, if the Breeders’ Cup was a freshman college student’s concoction, it would not be hard to see that the crowd was dressed up for a funeral – for something big to come to an end by the story’s final chapter.

Through some tricks of the trade I am not sure the turf writing community would appreciate me spilling, I managed to stay on the sixth floor for the majority of the day. Fortunately, the balconies flanking the press box meant I could check out the scene at the paddock and the track at my convenience.

The day consisted of stepping out on a balcony, watching the horses I’ve seen on TV and in the magazines compete before my very eyes, sitting down, writing about it and repeating the process. Lucky. Son. Of. A. Gun.

The most powerful performance on the undercard was Uncle Mo’s absolute dismantling of the Juvenile field. Seeing him roll down the stretch as John Velazquez looked behind his shoulder to see a whole lot of nothing was among the most dominant performances I have seen at the races. It is a long, hard road to the first Saturday in May, but boy does he look dangerous. My story on the Juvenile can be read here.

I also wrote about the Big Drama’s front-running victory in the Sprint, which can be found here.

The day was about the potential three-peat by Zenyatta, but it was preceded by an actual three-peat by European super-mare Goldikova in the Mile. The winner’s dramatic stretch drive completed the exacta with the other half of her entry, the horse’s groom, who sprinted down the dirt track in jubilation. This is another timeless Breeders’ Cup moment I failed to catch until I saw the replay. I am Gump-like in my stumble through history.

Between then and the Classic, I covered the Turf, which can be read here.

But let’s face it, no one is here to read about Dangerous Midge, so we’ll get to the good part.

It was a long wait between the Turf and the Classic. I liked it because it gave me time to work on my story, but it also meant lots of time to generate a buzz in the crowd. By the time Zenyatta made her way from the barns, the spectators could hardly contain themselves.

The roar of the crowd followed the giant mare as she passed in front of the grandstands and she reciprocated by striking out with her front hooves and tossing her head. Hawaiian football teams have their war dances to pump up themselves and the crowd, and Zenyatta has hers. I alluded to it in a previous post, but things like this are what make Zentatta the kind of horse who steps up a level when one of her races is experienced live. “Electricity” is rarely a word that can truly be applied to any situation in horse racing, but seeing that horse own the crowd and absolutely know what she’s doing was nothing short of that.

I made the mistake of going back inside to chip away at my story as the horses saddled up. This ended up costing me prime real estate on the balcony. By that point, I could not tell whether I was shivering from the cold or from the jitters. Perhaps I should not have had the jitters, being as though I did not have a meaningful stake in any of the horses in the field, and the unwritten rules of journalism dictate I remain reasonably neutral in situations like this. However, when one is on the verge of witnessing something this potentially big, it is hard to keep the butterflies in check.

The horses paraded in front of the grandstands to varying degrees of cheers (no need to guess whose was the loudest) and headed behind the gates. If the Kentucky Derby is considered the most exciting two minutes in sports, the two minutes before this race had to be the most agonizing.

Finally, the horses were loaded into the gate (even Quality Road this time) and released. The entire grandstand let out a chuckle as announcer Trevor Denman (who I am all but certain was brought in specifically to call the race for Zenyatta) informed the crowd that the champion mare was in last place as the field crossed the wire for the first time.

However, that moment of lightheartedness was soon replaced by concern as she kept falling farther and farther behind the pack. The late move has been Zenyatta’s bread and butter from day one, but with so many new variables in the race (see: Dirt Surface of Doom) and her absolute emptiness going through the first turn, there was legitimate cause for uneasiness. But still, we stayed faithful.

Zenyatta was still well out of striking distance in the final turn and only showed signs of making a run as the field turned for home. By that time, however, traffic down the middle of the stretch had become heavy, and holes were closing up before jockey Mike Smith could get his mount’s nose into them. He was forced to take Zenyatta almost out to the middle of the track, but when she had daylight ahead of her, every person in the stands knew what was coming.

This set up the epic stretch battle between Zenyatta and Blame. As they came down to the wire, the leader was fully extended to avoid falling to the green and pink reaper coming up to his outside; and a mass of 72,739 people leaned to the right to make sure he did.

Then they hit the wire.

It was a photo finish, but anyone with a clear view of the line knew who got there first. The vacuum-like suction of clamor was enough of an “official” sign to figure it out.

Zenyatta came back first. The applause she and her rider received was comparable to that of a winning effort in any other scenario but this one. I have never shed a tear over a horse race, and that streak lives on to this day, but witnessing that outpour of affection in a losing effort was among the most powerful things I have experienced.

Smith pat Zenyatta on the shoulder before dismounting in front of the grandstand for the first time in the horse’s career. As Smith unsaddled her, someone put his arm around the rider. However, once the horse was gone, Smith stood alone on the track, surrounded by a ring of lights and cameras. No one tried to interview the jockey or offer him a consoling shoulder to lean on, the latter of which he probably could have used. He walked off the track and to the scales essentially by himself. After that, I lost track of him.

Blame was greeted to the winner’s circle with a smattering of applause. It is hard not to feel a little bad for the horse that takes down the fan favorite, even if he does cash a $5 million check along the way. At the time, though, it was just too soon to forgive.

In the press box, the aftermath of the race was fairly solemn, but there was too much work to be done to dwell on it for long. That did not make Mike Smith’s tearful press conference any less difficult to watch. As the replay of the race looped on a monitor next to the one displaying the press conference, I found myself leaning into the finish each time as if I could will the mare into putting a nose in front this time. It didn’t work.

It took a moment after the race for me to realize I was holding a winning ticket. As per my traditional big-race wager, I boxed five horses in a $1 exacta; Zenyatta, Blame, Quality Road, Musket Man and Lookin At Lucky. It was a chalky bunch, but with the large pools, it stood to make a profit – small as it may be.

However, I could not cash the ticket. Don’t read too deeply into this. I didn’t fail to cash the ticket out of some kind of guilt for profiting at the expense of immortality. The mutuel teller’s machine just wouldn’t take it. I took this as a sign that the racing gods were angry at the outcome of the Classic and decided to cash it the next day.

I was not scheduled to write a postcard for that day’s issue of TODAY, but I was slated for the Monday issue, so I decided to get that out of my system while everything was still fresh. I felt good about the finished product. Then, I was informed that I would indeed be needed to provide a postcard for the upcoming issue. No one ever regrets being over-prepared. Thoroughbred Times TODAY is a subscriber benefit, so posting the whole thing is a no-go, but a portion of the piece was selected as a “Quote of the Day” by the blog Horse Circle, and that was my big hook anyway, so be sure to check that out.

After the races, Thoroughbred Times editor Ed DeRosa and I went to Za’s, a Louisville pizza establishment. It was pretty good.

After over 3,000 words, one may think this was a full weekend, but as will be seen in the next installment, things were just starting to get interesting.

Behind the jump are some shots from Friday and Saturday’s races.

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Breeders’ Cup Mercenary Song – Part 1: The Build-Up

Zenyatta oversees the happenings in her barn the Thursday prior to the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

Sometimes I have to step back and marvel at what a lucky son of a gun I can be.

It happened when I was roaming the backstretch after the Kentucky Derby watching the competitors cool out and seeking out quotes from their connections. It happened when I was sitting at the top of the bleachers at Yellowstone Downs, looking over the track and wondering how I ended up in Billings, Mont. Heck, it even happens sometimes when Mount Pleasant Meadows puts out a seven-horse field.

This feeling might occur two or three times over an especially good weekend of racing.

However, the feeling became almost routine during my recent weekend at Churchill Downs assisting with coverage of the Breeders’ Cup for Thoroughbred Times.

An eight hour drive from central Michigan to southern Indiana on Wednesday left little downtime before that evening’s National Turf Writers Association dinner. Because I am not yet a member of the organization (more of a hanger-on), my admission was earned by being the event’s photographer. At a party including several professional photographers, the guy taking the pictures was using a camera purchased from Wal-Mart. Again, lucky son of a gun.

The dinner was held at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, and the night’s host was close friends with the building’s namesake. Between presentations, the host began an anecdote about The Greatest’s crush on actress Bo Derek. As he spun the tale, I began to wonder what it had to do at all with horse racing, turf writing or anything in particular. That question was answered when he yielded the podium to Derek, who somehow managed to sneak in under my radar. The actress was there to present retired jockey Richard Migliore with the Mr. Fitz Award for “typifying the spirit of racing.” Like a good musical act, I highly recommend seeing Bo Derek in person.

After all was said and done, I headed back to my hotel. As I gathered my belongings to take to my room, I reached for my camera case and found nothing. The camera left the party around my neck, but the case, holding many of the tools that make me a less incompetent journalist, apparently did not.  I had left it back at the Ali Center tucked behind a column so no one would take off with it. Mission accomplished. After driving back to the center to find the front door locked, I conceded defeat and pledged to pick it up the next day.

Thursday started early on the Churchill Downs backstretch. Much like Kentucky Derby weekend a few months back, the opening to the track became a much longer chute courtesy of the camera-toting credentialed individuals lined up to catch a glimpse of horses under the purple Breeders’ Cup saddlecloths. Each horse entered in one of the weekend’s marquee races sported a towel bearing his or her name, which made for easy identification, and one would assume a nice keepsake for the horse’s connections.

While the horses scheduled for the undercard Breeders’ Cup races were a sight to behold in and of themselves, few, if anyone in the row of spectators was there to see the contenders for the Juvenile Turf. Consistent with the theme of the weekend, everyone was there to see champion mare Zenyatta make her way out to the track for a jog.

The mare showed up with an entourage of handlers and security not unlike a boxer heading to the ring. Cameras blew up like popcorn and Zenyatta ate up every bit of it. Ever since the horse hit the national spotlight, fans have gushed about her awareness and adoration of the spotlight. Prior to that day, I dismissed it as horse-crazy fans looking to give human characteristics to a potentially all-time great horse. Those few moments between the barns and the track, however, verified all of it. Over the course of the weekend, it just became more and more apparent.

As Zenyatta made her way onto the track and down the mile chute, I tried to find a spot on the rail. No such luck. With two years worth of photos at Keeneland Race Course obscured by the backs of people’s heads, I knew my best course of action was to find the shortest person on the rail, stand behind them, shoot over his or her head and hope for a good sightline. Did it make me feel really creepy? Kind of. So much so it warranted passing up an opportunity to get a shot of Zenyatta in action? Nope.

All she gave the crowd was one lap around the track, so it was literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I tried rushing back to the gap to get some shots of her returning to the barns, but the crowd was too big for me to get any decent shots. The horse is kind of a big deal.

With the main attraction tucked back in her stall, the crowd dispersed by the gap and on the rail. I took the opportunity to wander back out to the rail and watch a few of the stragglers finish out their breezes.

A handful of European turf writers stood nearby. Throughout the weekend, much ado was made about the critical feelings of the Euro writers toward the North American way of doing business. So as not to appear xenophobic, I quietly dismissed those notions and passed it off as two groups who approach the same thing from different angles.

While these thoughts were passing through my mind, one of the European horses tossed its rider on the track. It stayed in the general area, and was swooped down upon by a few outriders, which mildly startled the loose horse. Back near my post, the writers from across the pond bemoaned the “cowboy” methods of wrangling the horse employed by the outriders and suggested a calmer method may have led to an easier recovery. I am not saying he was right or wrong – just two different ways to grab a loose horse by the reins.

Soon, it was time to head to the grandstands to prepare for the day’s races. I did not have any assignments for the day, so I took the opportunity to explore the scene and get situated. The press box at Churchill Downs is on the sixth floor and leads out to a balcony overlooking the track. The finish line is almost straight down, which can be moderately terrifying if there is not a race to distract from the drop. Taking that into consideration, it was still unspeakably cool to be able to walk through a doorway and have a graded stakes race unfold right in front of me.

Looking out over the track, it was apparent that the infield had still not recovered from the Derby festivities, partially due to a summer-long drought in the Ohio Valley region. A long patch of dead grass served as a reminder of the mudslide that ensued during the mint julep-fueled debauchery on the first Saturday in May.

After a few races, I decided to wander around the ground level. This was the day to do such things before the crowds got unbearable. As such, there were open seats right at the finish line. I watched the race next to a guy who happened to be from Michigan. We discussed the University of Michigan football program (of which my knowledge pretty much begins and ends with Denard Robinson) and exchanged a celebratory high five when I realized I had the winning exacta. After the race, he went off to find his friends and I went to cash a ticket.

Meanwhile, I received a text message from upstairs asking if I’d like to join Thoroughbred Times editors Tom Law and Ed DeRosa on a trip back to John Shirreffs’ barn to chat with the trainer and get some face time with Zenyatta. I decided to get a hot dog instead.

For those of you who did not exit out of this page after reading that last sentence, thank you for understanding my sense of humor.

To get to the backstretch, we took the shortest distance between two points – across the track between races. No matter how many times I do this, be it during the races or after all the horses are put away for the night, this never stops being a big damn deal for me.

We got back to Barn 41 and learned that Shireffs was in the middle of another interview. While the time standing out in the cold was rather unpleasant, it did provide the opportunity to soak in the scene. A pair of police cars sat outside the barn. Two or three guards were in the vicinity, mostly chatting with bystanders like myself. A case of Guinness beer sat on a box outside Shirreffs’ office. After a 60 Minutes feature made light of the fact that the brew is Zenyatta’s favorite, it became one of the most endearing aspects of the horse’s camp.

Eventually, we were allowed into the barn. While Tom chatted up Shirreffs, Ed and I recorded the mare in her natural habitat. Zenyatta is enough of a goliath on her own. Putting her on top of a mountain of straw is almost unfair.

While it was certainly an unforgettable moment to get some time with Zenyatta, it was also a rather grounding one. As she stood in her stall and took gobs of hay from the netting outside her door, the thought came over me that through all the victories, the stories, the dancing and the photographs, this is still a horse. She puts hay in one end and someone has to clean up what comes out the other just like the ones I have at home. This seems like a pretty obvious statement to make, but through all the hoopla surrounding Zenyatta, it can be easy to forget that she essentially lives the same life as the horse two stalls down. She just gets photographed a whole lot more along the way.

I had to make my exit from the track shortly after getting back to the press box in order to pick up my camera case at the Ali Center before it closed. Fortunately, security had it waiting for me. While I was waiting for it to be retrieved, Kentucky Gov. Steve Bershear passed by and headed toward an elevator. I have officially seen the Governor of Kentucky in person more times than I have seen the Governor of Michigan. I am OK with this.

The day concluded with the Breeders’ Cup welcome party at Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center. Several of racing’s notable figures were in attendance, including many of the young local jockeys, who had a disproportionate number of the good looking women around them.

The evening’s entertainment was provided by country music superstar Toby Keith, who is a racehorse owner himself. During the buildup to the show, I wondered to myself if he would be bold enough to play a song like “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue”, where Keith suggests applying boot leather to the posterior of anyone who should threaten the U.S. of A., to an audience that included a significant international population. Thankfully, Keith decided to keep that song on the shelf, but he did play just about every other radio staple over his career and wrapped up with a surprisingly faithful version of Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold”. Say what you want about Toby Keith, but you’ve got to appreciate anyone who pays tribute to the Motor City Madman.

I mingled for a time after the concert, then headed back to my hotel to get some sleep. Business was going to pick up tomorrow.

Behind the jump are some photos from the Wednesday and Thursday of Breeders’ Cup week.

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