Spiral Diary: A Bluegrass Start to the Derby Trail

Events / Travel

When I started planning my birthday weekend, the first thing I added to my calendar was a trip to Turfway Park for the Spiral Stakes. I had never been to Turfway before, even though it is just about an hour from my house, so going on the track’s biggest day seemed to be the best time to finally experience the track.

In addition, I had never been to a Kentucky Derby prep race, outside of the Dixana Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland in the fall for the 2-year-olds, so Turfway was a home run idea for me.

I arrived at the track and must have looked like a tourist when I whipped out my camera in the parking lot and took a photo of the front of the track.

After getting inside and setting all of my stuff up in the press box, I headed out to the track for the second race. I always like seeing how different tracks compare with others set-up wise, so it was a good excuse to go out and enjoy what was turning into a good day weather-wise.

The Turfway paddock is nice and big, so it made it easier to both see and photograph the horses individually instead of having them pass me nearly on top of each other. It was also nice to catch this race because an old “buddy” of mine was running. I fell in love with Hanuman at Churchill Downs last spring and was excited to be able to see him run today.

After watching him in the paddock, I went out to find a spot on the rail. The great thing about Turfway is that the crowd is able to get right on the rail, so I found a pretty epic spot. The horses are close enough that you can literally touch them as they go by (although, I wouldn’t recommend that), giving fans a truly up-close-and-personal experience at the races.

Unfortunately, Hanuman didn’t win but his race had an extremely exciting finish with the top five horses finishing within about a length of each other. It was a great start to the day and was a good reminder that stakes races aren’t the only ones that can get your adrenaline pumping.

After a few more races, a few friends and I decided to check out some more of the festivities before our day got extremely busy. I’d heard that a few Thoroughbred aftercare booths would be set up at the track and found them during the rare, slow moment. Every other time I went past the booths, they were so packed that there was no chance to get a photo.

As we approached the bigger races, more people filtered into the track and it looked like some were having Kentucky Derby fashion test runs. These were just some of the outfits and hats I saw throughout the day.

The gift shop also provided a selection of hats for those who hadn’t done their Derby hat shopping yet.

This one was personally my favorite choice for a Derby hat, and I had a brief moment where I was trying to figure out if I could eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a few months in order to buy it. Sadly, my stomach overruled my heart.

Finally it was time for the big races of the day. While the first big race wasn’t a graded stakes race, it had attracted a good field.

The stakes race was named after 2011 champion 2-year-old male Hansen, so it was fitting that his half-brother (same dam [mother], different sire [father]) Gunderson was running in it. Gunderson is trained by Mike Maker and owned by Dr. Kendall Hansen so he looked to have the good Hansen karma needed to win the race.

But Maker wasn’t making it easy on the half-brother of his former champion as he entered two stakes winners against Gunderson. Animal Style was making his second start back after missing the second half of last year and he’d won an allowance race at Fair Grounds in January, which boded well for his chances here.

Maker also had Ghost Is Clear in the race, a horse he personally owns. Ghost Is Clear has given Maker quite a ride as the trainer claimed him [bought him out of a race] in November 2011 and since then, the gelding has hit the board (finished in the top three) 13 times in 16 starts.

Ghost Is Clear won the race by 2 ½ lengths for Maker and brought him home a $30,380 payday with the victory, not too shabby for a horse he claimed for $10,000 a little more than two years ago!

The next race was one that would impact the Kentucky Oaks, as a Bourbonette Oaks victory would give the winning filly 50 points toward racing on the first Friday in May.

The Bourbonette Oaks drew a full field with 11 fillies running, and the favorite was undefeated Sloane Square. It wasn’t too much of a mystery why she had the bettors’ confidence as she’d won her two career starts by a combined margin of 11 ¾ lengths. It was obvious that her groom also had complete confidence, and love, for her as he couldn’t stop petting her as they walked around the paddock.

The second betting choice was Aurelia’s Belle, who had hit the board in three graded stakes races but had not yet been able to get that elusive graded stakes victory.

As a girl who has a weakness for American Paint Horse-looking Thoroughbreds since I grew up with the Paint breed, I developed a fondness for Super Sky in the paddock. It’s probably not too hard to see why.

In the end, Super Sky finished fifth and Aurelia’s Belle finally got her graded stakes victory. The race locked the filly into the Kentucky Oaks and her owner, James Miller, was over the moon. While most owners want to have a horse in the Kentucky Derby, his dream is to have a filly in the Kentucky Oaks with the Derby as an afterthought. This victory was truly a dream come true for him.

You can see his huge smile to the far left of this photo. I wish him luck in the Oaks!

Finally, it was time for the biggest race of the day. The 3-year-old males started filing into the paddock just a few minutes after the fillies left the track, and it was another big field with 12 horses running. The Spiral Stakes guaranteed the winner a spot in the Kentucky Derby and also allowed the others in the top three to start Derby dreaming, so it wasn’t surprising that the field attracted such a large field.

First in the paddock was the No. 1 horse Big Bazinga. It looked like his sense of humor lived up to his name as he decided to stick his tongue out when he saw the camera. 

While there were many big, classy horses in the paddock, none seemed to tower over everyone as much as Asserting Bear. He was a huge horse!

The horse that had a lot of the photographers talking was Smart Cover. He was just oozing charisma and regality as he walked around the paddock. Sadly, that talent didn’t seem to follow him to the track as he finished last.

Tamarando was a horse that everyone was eager to watch. He’d flown in from California and had done really well out there winning the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity last year and the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby in his previous start. As expected, he went off as the favorite and seemed pretty cool in the paddock.

It was nice to see We Miss Artie in the field as well. The last time I saw him was during the stormy weekend that was Keeneland Race Course’s Fall Stars. He won the Grade 1 Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity during one of the biggest storms I’ve ever experienced in my life. He’s definitely grown up in the five months since I last saw him!

Harry’s Holiday was showing that he was ready to go from the moment that he was saddled, putting on quite the entertaining show.

From the time I saw that Poker Player was in the entries earlier this week, I was excited to see him “dance.” The colt had run last year at Keeneland, and during his time in both the paddock and post parade, he’d done a dance very similar to the one we used to see from champion Zenyatta. This time, he held out until the saddle was put on but I wasn’t disappointed and got a shot of him strutting his stuff in the paddock.

There was one final entertaining moment to the time in the paddock when the announcement was given for “Riders Up.” Big Bazinga took exception to that and well, let’s let this tweet do the explaining.

The big gelding got loose while Luis Contreras was going to mount and decided that cantering toward a group of photographers and journalists would be fun. Thankfully, once he realized there was a fence between himself and the place he was going, he stopped and let himself be caught. It was definitely a scary moment but the only “causality” was a microphone that was dropped while people were scattering. But we later learned that that, too, had survived Big Bazinga’s Big Prank.

The jockeys quickly mounted after the excitement was over and the field headed out to the track. It was chilly, but the fans were all glued to the rail as the horses came by for the post parade before moving farther down the track to load into the starting gate.

The crowd roared as the horses broke from the gate to start the race and Derby season was officially off in the Bluegrass (the Spiral is the first Kentucky Derby prep race of the year in the state).

The awesome thing about Turfway, and many other tracks, is that on these longer prep races, the field passes the grandstand twice. So we got to enjoy seeing the 3-year-olds run past us twice during the race. 

I’m glad that I’d zoomed out on my camera a bit as the field got closer to the wire because We Miss Artie was flying up on the outside and I literally didn’t see him until the horses passed the finish line. I thought it was a battle between Coastline and Harry’s Holiday for the win.

The race was so close at the finish that all of the photographers automatically looked down at their cameras to see who got the victory. We didn’t think We Miss Artie had gotten there in time, so I think everyone was a little surprised, but not disappointed, to see his number go up as the winner.

It was quite the party when the Ramsey family learned that We Miss Artie had won, because it meant that they had a horse for the Kentucky Derby. It seemed like everyone wanted to lead We Miss Artie into the winner’s circle.

We Miss Artie made sure that he wasn’t forgotten in the organized chaos of the winner’s circle, posing for the cameras as they circled to get him just right for the photo.

It was truly a happy celebration in the winner’s circle, even after the colt left, as the Spiral trophies were given out to the connections.

While the Ramseys were missing from the photos because they are in Florida, the press box also got a chance to talk to him by phone after the race. Mr. Ramsey serenaded us with a brief rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home” before telling us that his goal is to have all three of his Derby hopefuls in the race so he only has to worry about 17 other horses. He’s definitely well on his way after the Spiral win!

Side note: If Mr. Ramsey is reading this, I’d like to point out that I’ve been at both of We Miss Artie’s stakes wins, and I’m available if he wants to take me to the Derby with him.

After spending time following the race interviewing connections and writing a Spiral recap, all was quiet when I left Turfway Park after the races. It’s hard to believe that the Kentucky Derby is only six weeks away with only three more weeks of major prep races before we have a good idea of who we will see running at Churchill Downs during the first Saturday of May!

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