Tag Archives: Kentucky Oaks

Making the most of 2010: A look back on the year

The days leading up to New Year’s Eve offer a time for reflection on the year gone by.

For most, doing so may conjure up a roller coaster of memories, recollections, emotions and perhaps scars. Some will find they have made the most of the year, while others might discover that they have done very little with the last 365 days.

After doing some searching of my own, I have no problem staking my claim in the former group.

I often carry massive stacks of photo albums and other mementos in my vehicle because I always assume people do not believe me when I tell them the stories of my adventures. To save time and space, I have compiled some of the highlights of my 2010 into a handy bulleted list of links to posts of those stories.

Even after putting it into an itemized list, it boggles my mind that I experienced all of this in a lifetime, much less in one year. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I am a lucky son of a gun.

Let’s have a look at some of the things that have gone down since this time last year.

In the year 2010 I…

Said goodbye to the man who got me into this whole mess in the first place.
Watched the Michigan Gaming Control Board slash the state’s race dates.
Checked two tracks off my wish list.
Watched the Michigan Gaming Control Board slash the state’s race dates again.
Was told to get out of Michigan by Chris McCarron at Keeneland Race Course.
Followed a colt with Michigan ties through the Keeneland Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale.
Gave out 20-1 winner Exhi in my ThoroFan Handicapper’s Corner preview of the Coolmore Lexington Stakes.
Drove off the beaten path to chase the Fortune 6 wager at Beulah Park…And was promptly dumped out by the second leg.
Wrote some haikus for Claire Novak’s NTRA blog.
Lost a Kentucky Derby pin collecting contest against Dr. Sale Guru Emily.
Got pelted by a flying mint julep on Kentucky Oaks day.
Roamed the backstretch to gather quotes after the Kentucky Derby.
Went to Mount Pleasant Meadows a lot.
Hosted racetrack bucket-lister Tom Miscannon during his visit to Michigan.
Suited up in the box seats at Arlington Park.
Broke down a Pick 4 while waiting in line for a cage fight, then did a phone interview about my selections during an intermission for Claire Novak’s Youbet On-Track podcast.
Watched the next generation of Michigan-breds go through the sale ring.
Ate, bet and drove my way through Hoosier Park, Ellis Park, Riverside Downs, The Red Mile and River Downs, which earned the attention of Jennie Rees’ blog.
Severely underestimated the popularity of racing in Montana at Yellowstone Downs.
Played blackjack and the Quarter Horses at Prairie Meadows.
Live blogged the Indiana Derby on-site at Hoosier Park.
Partied with Bo Derek, Toby Keith. Encountered Kentucky’s governor. Visited champion mare Zenyatta in her stall.
Witnessed one of the greatest races in the history of the sport – The Breeders’ Cup Classic – Even if the outcome wasn’t what we had all hoped.
Got to pet Zenyatta, cover breaking news in the Churchill Downs press box.

I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis…Stay thirsty, my friends.

Okay, perhaps that last statement is not entirely accurate, but it seemed like the right thing to say at the time.

Later today, my travels will take me to Turfway Park. Once there, I will have been to every still-active track I have ever visited within the 2010 calendar year…If that makes any sense. Turfway was the last track I visited in 2009 as well, so it is fitting to bring everything full circle.

This year has been, without a doubt, the most memorable ride of my life. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who shared in my adventures over the last 12 months at the races, in the press box, in meetings, at parties, on the road, on this site and all points in between. You are the ones who make all these stories worth telling, be it as a reader or an active participant.

Now let’s try to carry some of this good mojo into 2011, shall we?

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Derby Fever: The Oaks

With nasty weather looming, Kentucky Oaks day drew a record crowd. Calvin Borel walks back to the jock's room after a race.

After a couple days of hard driving, harder partying (for me, at least) and wandering around the Churchill Downs backstretch, it was time to get down to business.

My drive to Churchill Downs that morning was turning out to be a glorious one. The sun was shining, KISS was blaring from my Trailblazer’s speakers and thanks to the fancy new suit I had purchased for the occasion, I was looking very, very good.

This moment of transcendence was quickly derailed, however, when I realized I had left the headphones to my tape recorder back in my hotel room. Going without would not have spelled my doom for the day, but it would have made the simple procedure of transcribing far more difficult and likely quite grating for those around me. Every once in a while, I wonder to myself how I have made any progress at all in the turf writing business. Sometimes I can be really bad at the whole “journalist” thing.

I pulled onto the last exit in Indiana before crossing the bridge over the Ohio River into Kentucky. After a series of turns and on-ramps that required way too much effort to get turned around, I made a quick run back to my room and was on the road again.

Eventually, I made it to the media lot. For Derby weekend, the media is given a lot near the University of Louisville’s Papa John’s Football Stadium about a half mile away from the track and shuttled to the grandstand or backstretch. This brought us into Surreal Moment #2 of the weekend.

Members of the media were shuttled from the parking lot to the grandstand by a fleet of decommissioned school buses. This fact stood out on its own, considering I had not once ridden on a school bus in the five years since I graduated from high school. What put it into the surreal territory was being crammed in a school bus with some of the turf writers I grew up reading. In the same setting where I sat nervously waiting for a football game, I now eavesdropped as Mike Watchmaker reminiced about the glory days of the New Jersey racing circuit. It took longer than it should have for this to sink in.

The bus trips were always mildly terrifying for two reasons. First, to better control traffic (I would assume), the National Guard had shut down certain roads and turn lanes. Many of the drivers were apparently not informed of these blockages, which led to several unexpected detours, especially at night. Second, everyone on board seemed to have the vague sense that the driver might not know where he or she was going. I will restrain from being too critical, because I would have done an infinitely worse job, but people with more experience in Louisville than I seemed to agree that there were better, more efficient routes to take.

The bus ride into the track provided a few moments of calm before the storm to relax, look out the window and do some people-watching. As we drew closer to the property, more and more houses offered parking in their yards and driveways to overflow patrons who could not get into the track’s lots. Judging by the general property value of the houses providing this service, a motorist may have been safer parking in a fire lane, getting towed and having the impound lot serve as his or her valet.

After exiting the bus (those steps are smaller than I remember), I made my way through the ground floor and to the media elevator. The handy media pass that allowed me access to said elevator matched my suit, which seemed to excite only me. Shortly after setting up in the press box, I was approached by superstar freelancer Claire Novak, who wanted to do a brief feature about my first Derby weekend for her Youbet.com blog. Being the attention-starved person that I am, I jumped at the opportunity. I can not speak with certainty, but that may be the first time I have been quoted for a story where I was a more than a random “student on the street” for my college paper. Thanks to Claire for making that happen.

My assignments for the day were to cover the Kentucky Juvenile Stakes, the American Turf Stakes and gather some “scene” quotes from racegoers at Churchill Downs. On a personal level, I made it my business to be as close to the action as possible for the La Troienne Stakes, which featured 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra.

By the time the La Troienne came around, the crowd throughout the racetrack had become quite thick. At final count, this year’s Oaks had drawn a record crowd of 116,048. Whether it was the allure of the Oaks itself, the additional draw of a popular Horse of the Year or the impending storm heading toward Louisville the following day, people came in droves, which made it hard to get from place to place, and nearly impossible to do it in a hurry.

The only prior experience I had with shoulder-to shoulder crowds of this caliber was Keeneland Race Course. However, when the attendance figures are stacked up, Keeneland suddenly seems less claustrophobic. To compare, Keeneland is similar to going to one’s local music venue to see the J. Geils Band. It may be a little cramped, and some may be in varying levels of altered states, but everyone knows why they are there and what they are doing. On the other hand, Kentucky Derby weekend felt more akin to the Warped Tour. There were tons of distractions, patrons generally could not handle their alcohol and they had less regard for those around them (this will come into play later) but there were an awful lot of acts worth seeing.

It took some bobbing and weaving, but I finally managed to make my way into the paddock. Judging by the mob of people with less-than-professional cameras in the middle of the walking ring, my plan was not unique.

It became apparent that Rachel was approaching the vicinity by the ever-loudening sound of the crowd as she made the walk from the backstretch. A disappointed groan rolled through the paddock as each new horse was brought in who did not have two Eclipse Awards on her resume. Finally, the defending champ was led into the paddock to the sound of cameras clicking away from the several-deep crowd. One couple with pink shirts and interesting haircuts held high a sign that read, “We drove from Jersey to see Rachel.” It is good to see there are fans out there with dedication.

As Rachel was led out of the paddock with the ever-smiling Calvin Borel in the saddle, I rushed to the same spot I had stood when two-time Horse of the Year Curlin took the same path on his way to winning the 2008 Stephen Foster Handicap and got a couple shots.

The race, expected by most to be a fairly unchallenging victory for Rachel after a necessary tune-up race, did not quite go as planned. Rachel Alexandra was well placed, if a bit uncomfortably ridden, through the first turn and backstretch and appeared primed to pull away at the top of the stretch. However, she was joined by Unrivaled Belle, who engaged her throughout the straightaway and out-kicked the champion to win the race.

There was little time to reflect on the race, as my first assignment, the Kentucky Juvenile, was up next. As the first graded stakes race for two-year-olds in North America, there was little background to draw on for each horse – Mostly just their pedigree, their connections and by how many lengths they won their maiden effort.

The race was won in a fairly convincing manner by Dogwood Stable’s Lou Brissie. Aside from some brief trouble spotting winning trainer Neil Howard (when I cover a race, I tend to root for the Pletchers, Bafferts and Asmussens of the world because I can easily identify them), getting the story together went fairly smoothly. My recap of the Kentucky Juvenile can be read here.

Somewhere in all the commotion during the day, Ed and I found trainer Mike Maker in the paddock. As I have alluded to in previous posts, Maker is a Michigan native and got his start at the Detroit racetracks. So as not to blow any shred of professionalism I may have all to hell, I only briefly talked about being from Michigan with him. However, that face time may have ended up paying dividends later. More on that in the next installment.

The next race I was scheduled  to cover was the American Turf Stakes. I lucked out when Todd Pletcher trainee Doubles Partner took the rail to victory. Pletcher, Gomez, no mystery. I spoke to both of them in the winner’s circle and tried my darndest to get everything done before the main event, the Kentucky Oaks, coming up next. The story on the American Turf can be found here.

For the Oaks itself, I assisted with gathering some quotes from the losing connections following the race. This meant getting to talk to the connections of Evening Jewel, who just had their hearts ripped out after Blind Luck staged one of her trademark screaming stretch runs to just get up at the wire by half a nose hair. Super.

Evening Jewel’s trainer, James Cassidy, went back to the barn with the horse, so that left me with jockey Kent Desormeaux. Understandably, he did not appear in the mood to talk. Fortunately, it’s hard to say “no” to a mob of reporters, so I got what I needed and headed back to the press box.

On my way there, I decided to grab one more interview for my “scene” quotes. I spotted a man who looked like he would provide some intelligent commentary and proceeded to ask him some questions. Remember what I said earlier about how Churchill Downs patrons typically appeared to be inconsiderate and bad at being drunk? My theory was soon proven accurate. As I conducted the interview and the man politely answered my questions, I heard the sound of glass breaking. Then I got very wet.

As I looked up to see what happened, I saw two frat-boy types in pink shirts (normally a distinguishing feature for idiot frat boys, but on pink-themed Oaks day, they were just two in the crowd) getting in each other’s faces. One was bleeding quite nicely from the back of the head. I quickly surmised that one had thrown a commemorative Kentucky Derby mint julep glass, still full apparently, at the other and we had been hit with the shrapnel.

The fellow I was interviewing completed the interview like a trooper and I got out of there before finding out what became of the two bozos. When I arrived back in the press box, I ran my hand through my hair and pulled out a mint leaf. My suit wreaked of alcohol for the remainder of the weekend. Fortunately, I had a backup.

After taking care of a few other tasks, Oaks day had come to a close. Ed, Sale Guru Emily and I then headed to a nearby Vietnamese restaurant where I had some decent General Tso’s Chicken and used the outside of a glass of water to relieve my sunburn, which I had acquired over the day.

Mint julep and sunburn issues aside, Oaks day was definitely a memorable one. However, there was not much time to sit back and reflect. I had to get back to the hotel, wash off the bourbon and get ready for the next day, because it was going to be big.

Behind the jump are some photos from Oaks day and the day of races that preceded it.

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Derby Fever: The Build-Up

One of the highlights of Kentucky Derby weekend was watching the contenders head out to the track for their morning workouts. Among them was Arkansas Derby winner Line of David.

Historically, Michigan-breds have had little impact on the Kentucky Derby.

Participation in the race by Michigan horses is not well documented, and the only immediately available example is Bass Clef, who finished third in the 1961 installment of the classic race.

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.

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