I love Kentucky Derby week: it’s crazy and hectic, for sure, but there’s nothing like the buzz in the atmosphere surrounding Churchill Downs in the days leading up to the world’s most famous horse race that is comparable to anything else.
This morning, I woke up early and headed over to the Churchill Downs stable area (known as the backside). The place was packed with Derby trainers, jockeys and owners, but there was also a prevailing calm as non-Derby horses went through their daily routines as usual. That sense of normalcy was a perfect counterbalance to the frenetic activity surrounding the Derby contenders and a wonderful way to ease into my morning at the track.
The scene below was very touching – the groom in the overalls holding the horse was constantly scratching and petting the horse’s face, and the critter had dozed off as he was tended to after his morning workout. It’s always so great to stumble upon scenes like this, where you see how close the bond between horses and their caretakers really is.
Going to the track in the morning is also a great chance to spot some of the sport’s stars. Here’s trainer Bob Baffert; while he won’t have a horse in the Derby this year, he will start Midnight Lucky in the Kentucky Oaks on Friday.
The gentleman painting below is Peter Williams. He’s a renowned equine artist who can be found at major racetracks across the nation and his work depicts the beauty and grace of the Sport of Kings.
I also ran into Rosie Napravnik, who was recently featured on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and will ride Mylute in the Derby. She’s just as nice and awesome in person as she seems on TV and she happily agreed to pose for a photo in front of the famous Churchill Downs twin spires for me.
I also managed to catch up with trainer Kenny McPeek, who will have both Frac Daddy and Java’s War in the Derby. He took some time to talk about his horses, their personalities and what he hopes to see from them in the "Run for the Roses." You can check out what he had to say in the video below:
Before the Derby horses came out to work, I took a moment to drink in the scene on the backstretch. There were hundreds of people milling around the “gap” – the area of the backstretch where horses enter and exit the track – and the crowd consisted of everyone from horsemen and women to media, fans and vendors.
If you’re not lucky enough to be granted access to the stable area, you can still catch all of the morning works here at Churchill; in fact, the Grandstand on the frontside (where people watch the races in the afternoon) was packed with eager fans waiting to catch a glimpse of a future champion.
Then it was time for the stars to shine! The Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks contenders have a specially allotted time to get their exercise in the morning where they’re the only horses allowed to train on the track. It happens right after the “break,” which is when the track is closed so that water trucks and tractors pulling harrows can resurface the track about halfway through training hours. As the headliner horses poured onto the track, there was a palpable change in the atmosphere as attention of the crowd shifted with laser-like focus to the action on the dirt oval.
I managed to get pictures of quite a few Derby horses; if you don’t see your pick here, don’t worry – I’ll be back again on Wednesday and Thursday morning, so I’ll be sure to get at least one good picture of each of the 3-year-olds bound for the "Run for the Roses."
First off, here’s Goldencents, the California contender who’s partially owned by Rick Pitino, head coach of the 2013 NCAA Basketball Champions, the Louisville Cardinals. I’m guessing that there will be a lot of hometown support for this horse on Saturday!
Palace Malice came by me next. He seemed very relaxed in his gallop and didn’t bat an eyelash at all of the action around him.
Overanalyze was also looking good. He’s owned by Mike Repole, the creator of Vitaminwater. Overanalyze is one of the “Todd Squad,” which is the nickname the press has given the five horses that trainer Todd Pletcher plans to run in the Derby.
Charming Kitten is one of the dark horses in the race; of the horses I saw this morning, he wasn’t my favorite. He seemed to gallop with his head high up in the air and didn’t look very settled. I’ll keep my eye on him throughout the week and report if he looks more comfortable with his surroundings as we get closer to the big race.
Another dark horse in the running Falling Sky looked very good to me. He was moving over the track well, and you can see in the photo that his rider has her “feet on the dashboard,” meaning that he’s pulling on her so much to go faster that her feet have scooted forward in effort to hold her horse to a slow pace. It’s a good sign as it means that the horse is full of energy and ready to run. He may be a horse who works his way into my betting strategy on Saturday.
Itsmyluckyday seems to be a horse that people have forgotten about in the road to the Roses. He actually has accomplished a lot this year, winning the Gulfstream Derby and the Fountain of Youth Stakes before coming in second in the Florida Derby to Orb, who could be the Kentucky Derby favorite. Itsmyluckyday looked calm and workmanlike on the track this morning and may be a smart bet on Saturday.
Another horse who’s largely flown under the radar these last few weeks is Vyjack. He looked really good this morning, and here’s something interesting about him: he trains in a bitless bridle in the morning. That means that instead of having a bit in his mouth, he uses a special bridle that applies pressure to different points on his face. It’s unusual to see a racehorse using this equipment, and I’ll try to track down his trainer Rudy Rodriquez to ask him about it this week.
Here’s a close up of Vyjack and his special headgear:
Java’s War is another horse that isn’t getting a lot of love from the horsey set online. He’s never won on dirt before – his victories have come on both the grass and on synthetic surfaces - but he seemed very at ease on the Churchill Downs main track this morning, galloping with a happy expression on his face. Those ears pricked forward tell us that this is a horse that’s enjoying himself.
I loved this moment – here are contenders Itsmyluckyday and Verrazano galloping by each other. Verrazano is a beast – he’s huge, and he was floating over the track with ease. He’s expected to be one of the favorites on Saturday, and with good reason – he’s a beautiful horse and he’s never lost a race in his life.
Here’s Black Onyx; he won this year’s Spiral Stakes, and I remember seeing him in the post parade on TV and thinking to myself how beautiful he is. He’s even more of a stunner in person (in horse? Whatever, you get what I mean.) and he’s another horse who will deserve a second look on Derby Day.
Frac Daddy is a horse that seems to try his eyeballs out every time he steps onto the track, but he also manages to get himself into trouble. He’s a big, big horse who may be a late bloomer, and his rider definitely earned his paycheck this morning since Frac Daddy clearly wanted to go. He was pulling on the reins and bursting with energy: another “feet on the dashboard” situation.
Normandy Invasion is another horse who gives his best in every race but hasn’t scored a big victory yet. Even though he’s not one of the favorites for the Derby, he looks great and was very focused during his gallop this morning.
After training hours were over, I headed to the frontside of the track to go visit Mine That Bird. He was the hero of the 2009 Kentucky Derby, when he won the race at odds of 50-1. He’s spending the summer at the Kentucky Derby Museum, located on the grounds of Churchill Downs, and he looks great and seems very happy here.
In fact, it was really hard to get his attention because he has a new best buddy: Winston, the miniature horse who lives here year ‘round. It’s clear that my presence was boring Mine That Bird.
Once Winston poked his head out of his stall, Mine That Bird let us humans know what he really thinks of us puny two-leggers.
Regardless of his feeling on seeing me, I was thrilled to get to visit Mine That Bird and I hope that any of you who are going to the Derby or Oaks will find the time to see him.
That’s it for today – thanks for stopping by, and I’ll be back with lots more tomorrow!
CHECK OUT MORE ACTION FROM CHURCHILL ON TUESDAY