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.