Saturday morning at Keenland Race Course was a teeth chattering experience, where even horses were seen buddied up to combat the cold. Regardless of the temperature, and the occasional snow flurry, the crowd at morning works was a good size, with kid’s day activities in the clubhouse, and the hope of seeing a Kentucky Derby favorite hit the track.
At around 7:30a.m., just as promised, Florida Derby winner and champion 2-year-old colt, Nyquist, walked onto the dirt and started to backtrack, jogging two revolutions on the outside rail before strolling back to his barn. While it was not a flashy appearance, the crowd in attendance was appreciative, with plenty of folks lining the rail to snap photos, hoping for a keepsake, should he be victorious on the first Saturday in May. Up close, I will say that he is a handsome and powerful-looking horse.
With morning workouts complete, I warmed up with a hot shower and returned to Keeneland just in time to catch the first race. I walked past groups of people tailgating in the parking lot, but the cold temperatures kept traffic and parking manageable, as the crowd would not begin to swell until later in the day.
For the first couple of races, I shot photos from the winners’ circle - about a furlong from the finish line. The second race saw a glorious finish as Limousine Liberal, with Luis Saez aboard, set a track record at 6 1/2 furlongs. While this horse had some trouble in the Twin Spires Breeders’ Cup Sprint on this same track last October, I might keep my eye on him.
After a quick break to recharge and swap batteries, I was back to see Saez’s second win of the day as he guided 4-year-old filly Truly Together to nose out the competition in the fifth race.
The sixth race was the start of the graded stakes schedule for the day, and the Ashland Stakes was packed with talent. I watched from the same spot as before - about a furlong from the finish line - and snapped a frame of the two horses leading the field as they passed me. With the winning horse not even in my shot just a furlong from completion of the race, 3-year-old filly Weep No More surprised everyone with her final push to cross the finish line in first place.
A small celebration broke out next two me, as two young members of the winning team cheered and praised the filly’s performance. As they were clearly connected to the winning horse, I congratulated them, and they turned to find the horse’s groom. (While I did not have time to find out, in this business, chances are they were related to him. Fathers, sons, uncles and nephews working together in support roles is quite common.)
I asked the trio if I could take their photo, as their joy was evident. (Their horse had gone off at 30-1 odds.) What is not as obvious from my photos is the emotion that was overwhelming the groom. As the man shook my hand and accepted my accolades, his eyes welled up and he was unable to answer when I asked his feelings. I smiled with my hand on his shoulder and indicated my understanding. “So much hard work”, I said. He nodded once as he bit his lip, and turned his face to see his filly carrying jockey Corey Lanarie toward him.
It’s only fitting that the filly’s name, Weep No More, comes from the most poignant line of the anthem for the Kentucky Derby, “My Old Kentucky Home”. On the eve of the Derby, she will run in the Kentucky Oaks. The race may well be dominated by Songbird, the talented filly trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, but based on her performance here, I would not discount Weep No More.
Back in the saddling area, I chatted with Peter Williams as we awaited the arrival of the horses for the next contest. Peter is resident artist at Churchill Downs, where I met him last year. He was on site, creating another of his renowned works. Peter works from life, painting on location, and his artwork is truly special.
He is a charming gentleman, who brushes off any praise, refusing my help as he gathered up his easel and paints before walking, by himself, toward the exit. If you see Peter in the paddock of a racetrack, take the opportunity to step back and watch him paint.
For the ninth race - the Madison Stakes - I did as a colleague suggested and stayed “between the rails”. With Keeneland’s recent change to real dirt for its main track, they ask that photographers cross the track only prior to harrowing. Once the tractors groom the course, you have to stay put. (Footprints in the fluffy base might create a hole for a young horse to step in, causing a misstep or stumble.)
As we waited for the horses to walk through the tunnel toward the track, I walked back and forth along the grass just outside the turf course. The day had turned into a beauty, with scattered clouds continuing to clear throughout the day, but as we passed the five o’clock hour and the breeze picked up, staying warm required me to keep moving.
The payoff for me was a refreshing perspective of the winning horse and jockey in the Madison Stakes, as 6-year-old mare Sheer Drama sprinted across the finish line, delivering back-to-back victories to jockey, Joe Bravo. Was it worth serving time “between the rails”? Absolutely.
The final stakes race of the day, The Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, was up next, with 100 Kentucky Derby qualifying points up for grabs. As post time approached and the jockeys filed out of the Jockey Quarters adjacent to the saddling area, I heard encouragement being shouted across the crowd to owners and trainers of the horses contending for this win.
As the starting gate was being towed into position for the race, I followed my brethren down the outside rail of the track to the finish line, where I found a spot close to the finish line to observe and document the race’s outcome. With the field in place, the starting gates opened and what amounted to a cavalry charge ran past the grandstands before heading into the first turn and onto the backstretch.
As the horses entered the home stretch, the 3-year-old bay colt, Brody’s Cause, opened up his lead and won the race, and jockey Saez earned his third win of the day.
As celebrations and congratulations from the day’s victories become memories, teams will return to the training track and the work of preparing for their next race. For some, it will be an allowance or a claiming race, but for the rare few, the first weekend of May at Churchill Downs will be their next start. Favorites for the Oaks and the Derby may have already emerged, and they may change in the coming weeks, but I’ll be keeping a close watch on the horses that earned their trip to Louisville through their victories at Keeneland on this day.
“Weep no more, my lady
Weep no more, today
We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home
The old Kentucky home, far away.”
- My Old Kentucky Home