Tag Archives: Thoroughbred Times

My new gig

For those who have not yet heard the news, I am starting on as a staff writer for Thoroughbred Times on August 8.

Dating back to my internship with Thoroughbred Times in the summer of 2008, my goal has been to get back with the publication in some capacity. Over that time, I have appeared in the magazine, website and daily publications in a freelance role at some of the sport’s biggest events.

If one got right down to the nuts and bolts of it all, my time with Thoroughbred Times was largely responsible for the birth of The Michigan-Bred Claimer. I did not want to start a racing blog until I had the right kind of momentum behind my name to make it stand out from the pack. An internship with Thoroughbred Times provided just that.

So, what does this announcement mean for this site? Honestly, I don’t know.

The job will require a move to Lexington, Ky., which means that coverage of racing in Michigan will become nearly impossible to pull off, especially on top of all the responsibilities of working for a leading Thoroughbred publication. Considering all the recent goings on at Mount Pleasant Meadows, this is a pretty considerable bummer, but opportunities like this are too rare to pass.

I have been asked if I would ever pass the title of “Michigan-Bred Claimer” on to someone else to carry on the coverage of the state’s racing industry. Quite frankly, I have spent so much time building the brand and its reputation that I’d prefer to hang on to the name for possible future use. This is not to deter anyone else from picking up the torch and providing the coverage Michigan desperately needs, in fact I encourage it, but if you use the “Michigan-Bred Claimer” name, I will find you…

Regardless of what happens to this blog, readers will still get to read my often off-kilter thoughts on racing in the pages of Arabian Finish Line. Because the publication covers a different breed of horse from Thoroughbred Times, the “Making Claims” column will live on.

Anyway, that’s what’s new and exciting around here. This development more than likely would have never happened without everyone who has read, commented, promoted and otherwise helped make The Michigan-Bred Claimer a rousing success in drawing attention to what I have to offer, and more importantly, what Michigan racing has to offer.

So many people in Michigan’s racing industry have been vital in helping me get to this point – from the horsemen’s organizations, racetrack personnel, owners, breeders, trainers and anyone else that was ever nice enough to accept an interview request, to the people on the track for not punching me when I shove a camera in their faces.

In particular, an enormous debt of gratitude is owed to Rick McCune, who has been one of my biggest teachers and supporters in this business. Simply put, if not for Rick, I would probably still be one of those kids who spends more time running races on the apron than watching the actual races on the track. There is no way I am here writing this post about this subject without his guidance, and for that, I can’t thank him enough.

A plethora of thanks also goes out to all of the publications who took me on as a freelancer and allowed me to expand my career to new levels. It was a thrill opening the mailbox every day and seeing my work appear in a different magazine, including Arabian Finish Line, Midwest Thoroughbred, Louisiana Horse and online at Thorofan.com.

Even if the end is near, this isn’t it for the blog just yet. I still have some time in Michigan, and as the last year has proven, there is never a dull moment in this state. Without a doubt, that experience will make me even better on my next stop.

I look forward to getting started on my new gig.

 

UPDATE: From the Michigan Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association website…

Joe Nevills, creator of the MI Bred Claimer Blog and member of MTOBA, will be leaving Michigan to take a position as staff writer for the Thoroughbred Times.  He begins this next phase of his career on August 8th in Lexington, KY.  A farewell party will be happening at Mt. Pleasant Meadows this Sunday, July 31st.  All are invited.  The MTOBA Board sends their congratulations and will all look forward to following  Joe’s stories in the Thoroughbred Times.  We will miss you Joe but we are oh so proud to have our own Michigan Bred son make it to the big leagues in Kentucky!

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Rave Reviews? – Animal Kingdom

Back in 2009, I put together a highlight reel of quotes and prognostications about Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird leading up to his upset victory at odds of 50-1. Needless to say, it wasn’t pretty.

This year’s Derby winner, Animal Kingdom, was not nearly the monumental shock Mine That Bird was, but at post time odds of 20-1, he clearly was not on the radar of many bettors.

With that in mind, I decided to again comb the prediction columns of some of the racing media’s most notable figures to see where they stood on Animal Kingdom prior to the big race.

Like the movie Avatar, Animal Kingdom received mixed reviews, but ended up making all the money. In the end, that’s all that matters.

As usual, I will start the proceedings with my own analysis of Animal Kingdom, so as not to give the impression that I am just taking potshots at everyone else.

#16 – Animal Kingdom
Won the Spiral Stakes
Even connections seem tense
About his dirt form

That is what we call a good, old-fashioned swing and a miss.

But it gets worse. Have a look at this post to my Twitter feed just hours before the race…

“Triumph The Insult Comic Dog’s “No Rules In The Animal Kingdom” came on my shuffle on the way to the track. Choosing to ignore that sign.”

That’s not only a swing and a miss, that’s a swing and a miss from a tee-ball stand, then whacking yourself in the face with the bat on the backswing.

Now, let’s take a look at how some of the other members of the turf writing community saw Animal Kingdom. Just for kicks, I have arranged the analyses in a rough order by how favorably they projected the horse’s performance, from non-factor to win threat.

Let’s start at the bottom…

“Bottom line: Can dismiss.”
– Tom Pedulla, USA Today

“Another complete mystery on dirt.”
– Steven Crist, Daily Racing Form

“Still has considerable upside, but didn’t beat much in the Spiral, and that race was six weeks ago.”
– Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form

“Animal Kingdom is bred to run all day long so the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Kentucky Derby isn’t a concern. His pedigree is geared mostly to turf racing, however, so it’s questionable if he’ll take to the dirt at Churchill Downs.”
– Dan Illman, Daily Racing Form

“Brilliant Speed and Animal Kingdom are synthetic/turf horses who may or may not relish the track…Animal Kingdom could be any kind of horse but has trained well and has yet to miss the board.”
– Jason Shandler, Blood-Horse

“Given the dirt question and the fact his major victory came in a Grade 3 race, Animal Kingdom deserves to be 25-1 in a 20-horse field. Animal Kingdom, however, seems to be generating favorable buzz, and he might not offer great value in the win pool. But given his consistency, stamina, and impressive last race, he should at least be an attractive exotic-wager proposition.”
– Marcus Hersh, Daily Racing Form

“Worth using in exotics, for sure.”
– Jay Privman, Daily Racing Form

Exotics Contenders: ANIMAL KINGDOM: In Graham We Trust. The horse looks outstanding in the flesh and should have no trouble with the Derby distance. There’s not a ton to like on past performances to be honest, but there’s an infinite amount of respect for trainer Graham Motion and I love the grassy pedigree on the dam side, so key in past Derby success stories.”
– Jeremy Plonk, ESPN

“I’m certainly going to use him in the trifecta, because people I respect say no horse had a better work than Animal Kingdom at Churchill.”
– Jennie Rees, Louisville Courier-Journal

“Yes, the dirt is a big question mark, and he’s bred for the turf, but he looked good winning the Spiral, and the horse he beat by 6 lengths came back to be beaten a nose in the Blue Grass. He made an impressive early move in the Spiral, so you know he has a turn of foot. And he’s bred to run forever, so you just have to take the chance that he’ll be as effective on dirt. In this kind of year, it’s a chance worth taking if the price is right.”
– Steve Haskin, Blood-Horse

“Trained by the very capable Graham Motion, Animal Kingdom would not be a surprise to hit the board at a big price.”
– Gene Menez, Sports Illustrated

“Love the way he won the Spiral. Watch out if he likes the dirt.”
– Andy Andrews, Kentucky Confidential

“Watch out for Animal Kingdom, especially now that John Velazquez is aboard. After all his bad luck with horses going out of the race, this is one man who is hungry for a Derby win.”
– Deirdre Biles, Blood-Horse

“Animal Kingdom is a beast of a horse who caught our eye last fall. He is long and lanky with a humongous quickening stride.”
– Bruno DeJulio, The Rail Blog – New York Times

“Roared mightily through Spiral field. Worked well on Churchill dirt. Trust in Motion and love the price.”
– John Scheinman, Kentucky Confidential

“Animal Kingdom is capable of a sustained drive for second.”
– Frank Angst, Thoroughbred Times

“I’ve got many questions about Animal Kingdom’s ability to transfer his form onto dirt, but the bottom line is that he’s improved as a 3-year-old, has the pedigree for the distance and seems adaptable to any kind of pace based on his limited starts. If he’s anywhere as good on dirt as he’s been on synthetic, he’ll be a factor in the Derby and that’s a leap of faith I’m willing to make.”
– Chris Rossi, Hello Race Fans

“Animal Kingdom will win the Kentucky Derby. I know this because I didn’t write a feature about him.”
– Claire Novak, Everything (this particular quote in ESPN)

Congratulations to everyone that cashed tickets on Animal Kingdom. To everyone else, the Preakness Stakes is only a couple weeks away. There is always time for redemption.

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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.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

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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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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The next adventure

This just a heads-up that things might get a little quiet around here for the next week or so.

Why, you ask?

Next week, I will be heading to Churchill Downs to assist in the coverage of the Kentucky Derby and Oaks for Thoroughbred Times.

This will be the biggest assignment of my journalistic career and arguably the coolest thing I have ever done. Hopefully, I won’t screw it up too badly.

I will try my best to post quick updates on my Twitter feed over the weekend, but those might get few and far between when things get busy. Expect a full recap once everything settles down.

To quote the great philosopher Barney Stinson, “This is going to be legen…wait for it…dary.”

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