As we get closer to the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby, it’s amazing to experience the excitement in the air here at Churchill Downs. In fact, I’m getting little-kid-on-Christmas-Eve whizzed up: my hotel neglected to send my wake-up call this morning, and I still bounced out of bed with plenty of time to spare to make it to the track for training hours.
I was really happy that I did get up, too: when I arrived, there were all sorts of cool sights to be seen. Here’s TV personality Mike Battaglia checking out the Daily Racing Form with Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert:
I also spotted Chip Woolley, who trained 2009 Kentucky Derby stunner Mine That Bird.
Here’s Donna Barton Brothers, who you’ll recognize from NBC’s horse racing coverage, enjoying the beautiful morning with some friends.
When I arrived trackside, there were even more fans there to catch the action than there have been in past mornings. I love seeing all of these people out to witness the beauty of training hours – seriously, if you live near a track, please try to see it for yourself one day. It’s indescribably awesome.
After taking in the scene, I headed into the barn area, where I ran into Kevin Krigger. He’s the jockey on Goldencents in the Derby, and he is having the most fun in the entire world right now drinking in the Derby experience. In fact, he got ahold of my friend Molly’s camera this morning and took a bunch of photos. If you want to see the Derby from his perspective, you can check out his photos here. (hyperlink to http://www.hrtv.com/through-the-lens-of-kevin-krigger-/)
Kevin’s an all-around awesome guy who has the reputation of having one of the strongest work ethics in the game. He also is really outgoing, and happily posed for photos with fans and gave out autographs, all the while snapping pictures himself.
After visiting with Kevin, I headed over to the entrance of the racetrack as Derby and Oaks horses made their way over to get their exercise. The crowd was huge, but really respectful of the horses as they milled about waiting for the track to open for training.
Once the horses moved out, I scrambled to get in position to get some shots of the stars of the show. Ladies first, so I’ll start with the 3-year-old fillies running in tomorrow’s Kentucky Oaks.
Here’s contender Close Hatches – as I remarked to my friend Claire, she isn’t a filly, she’s a mammoth! I mean, she’s absolutely beautiful and refined, but she is seriously large.
Here’s another Oaks filly, Midnight Lucky. She looks like she’s raring to go; her rider had his work cut out for him holding her in. You could almost hear her going, “WHEEEEE!” as she galloped by.
Unlimited Budget will also run in the Kentucky Oaks; she’s a lovely filly, and has the shine in her coat and bounce to her step that’s so typical of horses trained by Todd Pletcher.
As for the Derby horses, I’ve featured all but one of them in my previous Diaries; the only one I’m missing is Lines of Battle, who just shipped in from Ireland and is sitting in quarantine until tomorrow. I’ll try to get him then, but for now here are the horses who looked really good to me this morning.
First off, I have to show you the current Derby favorite, Orb. There’s a reason so many people like him: he looks like an oil painting come to life. This photo shows just how huge his stride is, and he’s not even moving close to full speed. I really, really like this horse.
Another horse who looks fantastic is Itsmyluckyday. He’s generating quite a bit of buzz on the backstretch, and I’ve heard several people say that he may be the smart money in the race.
People seem, for some reason, to be forgetting about Verrazano; I’m here to tell you that he’s looking pretty great, and he was giving the side-eye to his detractors as he stepped onto the track.
Normandy Invasion is another horse who caught my eye. He was galloping so strongly this morning that as he swept past onlookers, we all said, “Whoa!” He has a ton of energy and is clearly ready to go.
Revolutionary has also garnered a huge following in the early part of Derby prep season but has fallen under the radar as other horses won more recent races have stepped into the limelight. He’s not very big, but he’s cool as a cucumber and will be ridden by Calvin Borel, the maestro of Churchill Downs, in the Derby.
After training hours for the Oaks and Derby horses wrapped up, I wandered around the barn area to see horses cooling out and being pampered.
Here’s Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas taking one of his two Derby horses, Will Take Charge, to grab a snack.
Shug McGaughey, who trains Orb, was holding the lead rope of his trusty pony horse; these were the horses I was talking about in yesterday’s Diary. I love trainers who oversee the care of each and every one of their horses, and Shug is a true old-school horseman.
He was also keeping a close eye on barn superstar Orb. The big colt was relaxing under the careful ministrations of his groom, who was giving soft words of encouragement to Orb throughout his bath. As I’ve said so many times before, the bond between horses and their grooms is a powerful thing to witness – it’s more of a partnership than a pet-and-master situation.
Itsmyluckyday was also enjoying some downtime, happily snacking on the fresh spring grass and totally ignoring the throngs of reporters and fans around him.
I then had to boogie, since I was due to be interviewed by the awesome folks at Capital OTB, an Albany-based horse racing TV show. I chatted with them for about 20 minutes about the Derby scene, the people, the horses, and America’s Best Racing; and then I hoofed it over to the frontside of the track for the day. By the way, I’m starting to develop incredible upper-body strength from hauling several cameras, a 17-inch MacBook , video equipment, microphones and whatever else is in my bag around racetracks. Seriously, check it:
Side note: You will never look like as big of an idiot as I just did taking a selfie while making a muscle in the middle of the press box.
Anyhoodle, once I arrived frontside, I heard that 2003 Kentucky Derby hero Funny Cide had joined 2009 Derby winner Mine That Bird at the Kentucky Derby Museum for the day. Two Derby winners in one place? I was there!
Both of the “Run for the Roses” winners looked fantastic, and it really was amazing to see them stabled next to each other. A crowd of fans had gathered to see them, and I was just as thrilled to be in both of these horses’ presence.
Here’s Funny Cide chilling out and grabbing a snack.
And here’s Mine That Bird with his best friend forever, Winston the miniature horse.
How cute is Winston? He was very interested in my camera. I was similarly interested in horsenapping him.
At 2:30 in the afternoon, Mine That Bird and Funny Cide headed to the Churchill Downs paddock to parade in front of fans. Both horses were clearly enjoying themselves, prancing and flexing their muscles to show off for the crowd.
When they were done, something really, really cool happened: to get back to their digs at the Derby Museum, the horses had to be led through the crowd. Security guards parted the crowds and the Derby champions danced their way back to their stalls trailed by photographers and cheered by onlookers. It was something I never thought I’d see, and it’s one of those memories that I know I’ll have for the rest of my life.
Even photographers who have been chasing the races for decades were struck by the scene. This is what makes Derby so special to me: these moments that seem like something out of a fantasy that just don’t and can’t happen in any other circumstance.
After recovering from the awesome, I took the time to take in some of the style on display here at Churchill Downs. It might not be Oaks or Derby Day yet, but Louisville knows how to dress for the races, and there was some really great fashion from both men and women on display. Below is a selection of some of the fantastic looks I managed to catch on camera.
After an action-packed day at the races, it was time for me to head over to the Taste of the Derby. This event features signature food from racing destinations from around the nation and is a really great event and also serves as a fundraiser for hunger relief organizations – a great party for a great cause.
We arrived at the Taste of the Derby and were met with a decadent scene. There were chefs from every corner of the country and beyond, showing off their best regional cuisine to legions of guests, and the place smelled fantastic.
We wandered from chef to chef, learning what each team brought to represent their hometown. There was everything from alligator from Florida to pork belly from Arkansas to oysters from Canada’s Eastern Provinces.
There were also lots of cocktails on hand including imported beer from the sponsor, Stella Artois, as well as specialty drinks and mint juleps (of course!) Sadly, I wasn’t able to indulge in any of the delicious food or cocktails around me, but you can be sure that one day I’ll sample my way through this party!
There were also fun places for guests to pose for photos, like this faux-hot air balloon basket. Looked like fun!
I’ll leave you for the moment with a few other photos of tonight’s festivities, and I’ll be back with lots more Friday with all of the Kentucky Oaks excitement.