My alarm buzzed bright and early this morning (actually, not so bright; the sun hadn’t yet bothered to rise, the lazy bum) and I hopped out of bed in a great mood. As I was saying in yesterday’s blog, I truly adore going to the track in the morning to watch horses train, and the fact that it’s Derby week makes the experience all the more exciting.
I arrived at Churchill Downs just as the sun was coming up and I headed to the track to take some photos. There’s an otherworldly calm to the morning at this time of day despite the heavy traffic of equines on the racetrack. There are approximately 1,300-1,400 horses living at Churchill Downs, and most of them will get out on the track at some point during the allotted training hours. Regardless, the mornings are a time of calm routine, and the atmosphere is downright palliative and as I walked to the track I took in the sights of horses enjoying their typical workdays.
I’m obsessed with pony horses at the racetrack; these are the equines responsible for getting the Thoroughbreds through their training routines safely and calmly. They’re remarkable horses known for their patience. The one below was so well-trained that he was waiting for his rider all by himself without needing to be tethered to stay in place.
When I arrived at the track, the scene was amazingly beautiful. The sun was just rising and the sight of the myriad horses taking their exercise was breathtaking.
There was an even larger crowd out today to catch the morning action, and it was great to see how enthusiastic everyone was to see the horses (and not just the Derby and Oaks stars.)
The human celebrities were back out in full force, too. Here’s awesome trainer Bill Mott (he’s in the Racing Hall of Fame) coaching his team of runners from the back of his pony horse. He seemed to be in a great mood and rumor has it that he’s very confident about his Kentucky Oaks starter Close Hatches.
I also spotted Hall of Fame Jockey and all-around good person Pat Day enjoying the pre-Derby festivities.
Mike Repole, the man who founded Vitaminwater and the owner of Derby horse Overanalyze, caught up with renowned racing photographer Barbara Livingston and asked to have his photo taken with her. I don’t blame him one bit – Barbara is an amazing photographer and is one of the nicest people in the world. If you want to see some truly outstanding racing photos, Google Barbara’s work or go to her blog at DRF.com.
There were other major celebrities out to play here today: Rick Pitino, who coached the University of Louisville Cardinals to an NCAA Basketball Championship this year, is a partial owner of Derby contender Goldencents. He held a press conference outside of the colt’s barn, and the local media was out in full force. It was a true press scum, and ABR cameraman Greg Charkoudian and I wedged ourselves in the middle of the phalanx to get the scoop.
It was really cool to see a man who is literally at the top of his game be so enthusiastic about racing, and it was even cooler to see him talking to Goldencents’ jockey Kevin Krigger. I’m guessing if you’re going to get coached by someone, the man who led his team to the college basketball championships isn’t a bad choice!
Gorgui Dieng, the Center for the Louisville Cardinals, was also there. This guy is HUGE – as in 6’8” tall! It was remarkable to see him towering over everyone, and I would have loved to see him stand next to jockey Kevin Krigger. Sadly, that didn’t happen, but he seemed very impressed by the whole Derby scene.
After I was finished gawking at the human stars on the backside, it was time to focus on the four-legged celebs – the Derby and Oaks horses! I tried to get photos of as many of the runners that I missed yesterday, and I’ll be sure to keep an eagle eye out tomorrow morning for the remaining contenders that I haven’t managed to find yet.
First off, here’s Orb. He’s the morning-line favorite in this year’s Derby, and it’s easy to see why. He’s an absolutely stunning horse, and he was incredibly relaxed on the track amidst the hubbub of Derby and Oaks training time. That kind of attitude is really important on Derby day, when the huge crowd can rattle even the sanest of horses.
He seemed to enjoy the attention he was getting, striking a pose for photographers to make sure we could get his best angle.
Will Take Charge, below, is a looker, isn’t he? He’s trained by the legendary D. Wayne Lukas, and he’s one of those horses who really captures your eye.
His stablemate Oxbow was out as well. He’ll be ridden in the Derby by Hall of Fame jockey (and star of Seabiscuit) Gary Stevens, who came out of retirement this year and has been winning lots of races. It definitely makes for an interesting Derby day!
Goldencents – the horse that Rick Pitino owns a piece of – had a lofty look in his eyes. He’s trained by last year’s Derby- and Preakness-winning trainer Doug O’Neill, and it would be one heck of a story if this team found the winner’s circle on Saturday!
Here’s Mylute. He’s jockey Rosie Napravnik’s horse in the Derby, and I have to say that he looks pretty good. He was completely at ease on the track, galloping on a loose rein and travelling well.
Here’s Revolutionary galloping. He’s not the biggest horse in the Derby field, but he certainly is a great mover and looks to be very fit.
Verrazano, who also will be among the favorites on Saturday, is a physically breathtaking horse. He’s quite big at 16.2 hands (a hand is the way a horse is measured; it’s 4 inches, which makes Verrazano 5 ½ feet tall at the highest part of his back) and his owners told me that he weighs close to 1,200 pounds. It’s pretty incredible to think that he takes orders from a jockey who’s shorter than he is and clocks in at 1/10th of his weight!
Golden Soul, a late addition to the list of Derby contenders, looked very comfortable on the track this morning. He’s a very nice horse, but he faces some very tough company on Saturday.
On the female side, I only saw two Oaks fillies. They run on Friday, so some of them are conserving their energy until then.
First off is Beholder; she’s just a beautiful filly and was all business on the track. A friend of mine was able to go visit her in the barn this morning and reported that she’s a very alert, smart horse who likes attention. My kind of girl!
Here’s Close Hatches – she’s the Bill Mott trainee that I was talking about earlier. She’s a large filly and was clearly ready to run; keep an eye on this one on Oaks day.
After morning workouts, it was time to head to the races! One way that trainers prepare their horses for Derby day is to school them in the paddock in the days leading up to the race. This allows the horses to get used to their surroundings and gives the trainers an idea of how the horse will react on the big day.
Orb was in the paddock for the first race; I hadn’t arrived yet, but apparently a crane right next to the paddock fired up while he was in a saddling stall. Orb was very startled and began kicking the walls, but fortunately he wasn’t injured and fans and media members who were present rushed over to the crane operator and got him to turn it off. It was a scary situation, but thankfully it ended with no one worse for wear. Well, except perhaps for the stall walls.
I got to the paddock right after the drama, and Orb had already settled down and was walking without a hitch.
I got this neat shot of Charming Kitten in the paddock next. I couldn’t resist getting the iconic Churchill Downs twin spires in the background.
Here’s Normandy Invasion. He’s a horse that a lot of the horse racing Twitteratti are backing in the Derby. He was calm and workmanlike in the paddock, and gosh does he have a pretty face!
Verrazano was up next, and he also had no problem handling the paddock scene. It’s worth noting that even though it’s nothing compared with the crowd on Derby day, there were tons of people crowded around the rails of the paddock trying to get a glimpse of the horses that will be the central stars on Saturday.
Revolutionary, another of Todd Pletcher’s trainees in the Derby, was looking cool and collected in the paddock. I am very interested to see how he fares on Saturday.
After admiring the horses in the paddock, I had to skibble back to the press box to get some work done. By the time I looked up next, it was time for the Derby draw! The draw determines what post position each horse will break from, and it’s also when the morning-line odds (which are the track’s estimate of what the horses’ post time odds will be) are announced.
I hustled over to the Secretariat Lounge to catch the action, and by the time I got there the room was packed with media and horses’ connections eager to learn what number their horse would wear on Saturday.
While I was waiting for things to heat up, I managed to snap a few photos of some pretty cool people. Here’s ESPN’s Jeannine Edwards chatting with Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
Multiple Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher gave his very best Blue Steel face as he made his entrance.
Top jockey Garrett Gomez (AKA GoGo to his fans) was also there. He’ll be piloting Vyjack in the Kentucky Derby.
Also present at the Draw was the thing that brought everyone there to begin with: the Kentucky Derby trophy. As Master of Ceremonies John Asher pointed out, it’s priceless since it cannot be bought; it has to be earned. Needless to say, I really, really want one.
The actual draw was really interesting. Horses’ post positions are total luck of the, well, draw: it’s a double-blind process in which a horse’s name is randomly selected by one person while a post position number is randomly selected by another.
Throughout the draw, the parties affiliated with individual horses would cheer or groan depending on where their horse ended up, and there was palpable tension in the air as good post positions were eliminated. I was live-tweeting the entire thing, trying to get all of the information out as quickly as possible, and by the time the process was over I felt like I’d run in the Derby on my own two feet!
In the end, all of the horses had their starting gate assignments and the morning-line odds had been assigned. Ladies and gentlemen, your field for the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby:
Well, it’s been a long day and there’s lots more excitement to come later on this week! Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll be back with lots more tomorrow. I hope you’re looking forward to the Derby as much as I am, and let me know who you’re rooting for in the comments!