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.