Historically, Michigan-breds have had little impact on the Kentucky Derby.
With that in mind, there was very little precedence to draw from as I spent the weekend at Churchill Downs reporting, absorbing and just trying to keep up during all the excitement surrounding the Kentucky Derby and Oaks.
The festivities began for me Wednesday night. After a seven-hour drive and paying way too much for the last hotel room in Sellersburg, Ind. (my originally scheduled hotel was in Frankfort, Ky., about an hour from Churchill Downs, which, looking back, would have been nearly impossible for me to pull off), I quickly made myself presentable and headed into Louisville for the Kentucky Derby Media Party.
The party was a cocktails-and-dancing affair, with blinding stage lights and a live band that spread the ball around in terms of lead singers and genres. I spent my bulk of my time with Thoroughbred Times news editor Ed DeRosa, Sale Guru Emily and her friend Natalie trying to spot notable figures in the racing world.
The most immediately recognizable figure of the evening was trainer Chip Woolley, who saddled Mine That Bird to victory in last year’s Derby. His trademark black cowboy hat and mustache easily stood out among the hatless masses, who frequently swarmed him for the chance to have a picture taken together. Woolley did not have a horse on the Derby trail this year, much less one in the race, but his popularity was apparent throughout the weekend by the size of his entourage. Even if he never has another big-time horse, Woolley is the kind of figure who will remain popular around Derby time at Churchill Downs for years to come because he has the right look, a great story and he appears to connect well with race fans. One could only imagine how the sport would be different if it had more high-profile characters like him.
Other high-profile figures seen around the party included owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey and Robert LaPenta. The latter was partially responsible for a wager between Emily and I to see who could procure the most Derby contender pins over the weekend after a member of his group gave Emily one of his Jackson Bend buttons. I regret to say I was soundly blanked by a margin of 3-0. However, in my defense, the rules of journalistic ethics more than likely prohibit me from asking for free swag from connections. That’s the excuse I am giving for my shoddy performance, at least.
The next morning started on the backstretch as the Derby and Oaks contenders headed out for their morning jogs. In the past, I have normally come across big-name horses one or two at a time – perhaps at a stakes race at Keeneland or dropping into lighter company elsewhere. That morning, however, horses I had seen on TV and in magazines were walking by every few moments, made easily identifiable with their named yellow or pink saddlecloths signifying them as Derby or Oaks contenders.
This leads us to Surreal Moment #1 of the weekend. After the horses had returned from their workouts, Ed, Emily and I headed to the barns for interviews with the Derby trainers. Similar to the horses walking out to the track, the sheer concentration of high-profile trainers in the barn area bordered on mind-boggling. Within a span of three barns housed mega-trainers Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher and Nick Zito – all of whom were mobbed by cameras, microphones and tape recorders absorbing their every thought on the Derby, their charges and whatever else may come up in the course of the conversation. As Baffert mugged it up for the cameras, his two Derby entries, Lookin at Lucky and Conveyance, took turns getting hosed down in the background as photographers snapped away.
Simply put, I was no longer in Kansas…or Michigan for that matter.
After all the quotes had been gathered and the horses put away, we headed over to the front side for the rest of the day.
The Churchill Downs press box is on the sixth floor of the grandstand. It is an expansive area with rows of long tables for turf writers to ply their trade and a row of self-service betting machines for them to practice their hobby. Suspended above the room are television monitors of varying sizes displaying the races from several different venues, though most were tuned to the Churchill Downs signal.
The front of the room is lined with windows which overlook the track, though an even better view can be obtained by walking out onto the balcony. As someone with a mild fear of heights, it took several races before being able to look at the finish line, which is almost straight down, without white-knuckle gripping the railing. Throughout the weekend, I remained terrified I was going to drop something over the edge, particularly my camera, but I made it through the weekend without incident. When the uneasiness finally subsided, the view was breathtaking.
Another perk of the press box was that it was catered. I did not partake as much as I probably should have (especially given my well-noted cheapskatedness), but the fare was varied throughout the weekend and they kept it fresh. Not to sound too much like a bad Yakov Smirnoff joke, but where I come from, the press box is the driver’s seat of my dinged up Trailblazer catered by the hot dog I bought at the concession stand. On my end, everything above a desk, chair and internet access was gravy.
My primary goal for Thursday’s race day was to get a lay of the land and situate myself for what was to come for the weekend. Having gone through a similar experience covering the 2008 Stephen Foster Handicap when I interned for Thoroughbred Times, I had some background on where to go and what to do, but a reboot was definitely needed after a two-year absence. I did not have any responsibilities in regards to producing work for Thoroughbred Times, so I was able to sit back and enjoy the day of racing. Getting that day at half-speed was a big help to prepare for the full-contact days that lied ahead.
This concludes part one of what looks to be a three-part adventure. Behind the jump are some photos from the morning workouts and media frenzy around the Churchill Downs backstretch.