Many years ago when I was a stay-at-home fan watching the Kentucky Derby on TV, I would marvel at the sights and sounds of the Kentucky Derby Museum and wish that I could visit it. Now it is a magical part of my life every year when I return to Churchill Downs to write about the Kentucky Derby. The museum is absolutely tops in sharing the Derby experience to visitors and fans and their motto is “Where every day is Derby day!” Last year, they hosted the inaugural Fan Fest Day and it was such an outstanding hit that they decided to do it again. This year’s Fan Fest on Sunday honored legendary racing trainer D. Wayne Lukas and his four Kentucky Derby-winning horses: Winning Colors, Thunder Gulch, Grindstone and Charismatic.
The morning started early with fans eagerly lining up for entrance well before 8 a.m. Some were there for the historic walking tour. Others were there to secure their exclusive bottle of Woodford Reserve featuring 1996 Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone. Within minutes, happy fans were ensconced on the second balcony of Churchill Downs to watch the special morning workout of the Kentucky Derby and Oaks horses. It was a very pleasant crowd; many who had their cameras and camera phones ready as each horse went by. There was one very serious young fan with her bright red camera who never took her eyes off the horses. You could tell that she had a touch of “Derby fever” which seemed prevalent with the entire crowd.
At 10 a.m., D. Wayne Lukas showed up in his traditional blue jeans, sunglasses and black cowboy hat. Like a seasoned pro, he deftly started telling stories. There was lots of laughter as he shared his perspective on the horses and people in his life. He made a special point that trainer Bob Baffert is a very good friend. He told the story about beating Bob’s horse Cavonnier by a nose during Grindstone’s 1996 Derby win. “It was less than two inches! Bob’s crowd poured out towards the winner’s circle and I didn’t know what to do. I thought we had won but wasn’t sure. Turns out that we had won. Bob later told me that it took him several years to get over that loss.”
There were more stories that the fans were eager to listen to and they really opened up with questions. Fan Fest is designed to give fans access and it certainly did! Where else do you get such an amazing experience of sitting down with one of racing’s legends and asking him his impressions of his horses or what are his top four picks for this year’s Derby? (He declined but later said he had his choices whittled down to at least seven Derby contenders.)
I was admiring Louisville, Ky., resident Jan Landeau’s beautiful blue polka dot fascinator dancing in the wind and stopped them to chat. She thought that Lukas “was quite charming, open and just a delight.” Her husband Brett said “it was great to hear the stories and to see that the fans and the trainers share the same love of the event.” They were looking forward to seeing Calvin Borel, Carl Nafzger and Pat Day. They were also looking forward to more stories about behind the scenes and the camaraderie at the track.
The museum’s Great Hall was filled with people who were waiting to see Hall of Fame jockey Calvin Borel and trainer Carl Nafzger as they celebrated the 10th anniversary of their 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense. There were local residents who love to attend events at “their museum.” There were also fans who came from afar. Terri from Chicago started her drive at midnight to be at the museum when it opened. She had to be at work at 7:30 the next morning and was planning on returning to Chicago that evening after the events of the day had ended. She was tired but blissfully happy to be at Fan Fest. Next to her sat Stephanie and Gene Wise who had joined the Churchill Downs Racing Club. They were thrilled to be at Fan Fest and were very excited to be part of the second Racing Club. The first Racing Club had turned out to be extremely successful!
Borel was very relaxed as he and “Mr. Carl” shared their special memories. The race replay showed why he is affectionately known as “Bo-Rail” as he skimmed along the rail with Street Sense in a superb ride. As the video started, Borel jolted the audience with his loud whistle of encouragement that he lets loose with when his horse leaves the gate. I was ready to run myself at that point!
Nafzger said that he first saw Street Sense when he was a month old. His breeder said “He only has one thing wrong with him- he’s perfect and can only go downhill from here!” Nafzger shared his insight that “You don’t train a horse – the horse trains you.” Nafzger said that Borel was an instrumental part of Street Sense’s success. “If Calvin asked him to go through a brick wall, he would’ve.”
Nafzger answered an often-asked question: “What do jockeys and trainers talk about before a race?” He said that he told Borel to “Get on this horse and have some fun!” And indeed, Borel did just that bringing the roses home. He said “If you are a jockey and you don’t dream of winning the Kentucky Derby then something is wrong with you!” Winning the Derby was a life-changing event for both of them. They were extremely gracious after the presentation in meeting fans and signing memorabilia.
Outside in the Oaks Garden Terrace, children were having a blast playing in the Kids’ Zone. There were dress-up opportunities and stick horse Derbys. Kids could be artistic and decorate a horse shoe or design their own jockey silks. There was a very talented balloon artist making them balloon “doggies and horsies.” Outside, visitors young and old (including some special royal guests) flocked to visit resident Thoroughbred Unreachable Star (2009 Indiana Horse of the Year) and trainer Tim Glyshaw. They were delighted to receive a real horseshoe complete with Churchill Downs dirt.
Inside, fans patiently lined up to meet with artists Richard Sullivan and Jim Cantrell and have them sign prints of their Derby art. Around the corner in the exhibit area, a young girl happily rode one of the mechanical horses in a simulated race and told her brother “I am riding Melody. You are riding Penelope and that horse over there is named Chocolate!” She rode with authority and won the race handily.
We gathered in the Great Hall again to honor Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day celebrating the 25th anniversary of his 1992 Kentucky Derby win on Lil E. Tee. It was a very special ceremony that started with a video of Phoenix jeweler Darren K. Moore who had a special story and tribute to Mr. Day.
“On Derby day in 2014 I was working in the Churchill Downs store. In all the flurry of Derby activity I happened to look up, out the window, and saw Pat Day walking by with security. I remember thinking, I would really like to be able to talk to him.
The following day we went to breakfast at a nearby restaurant. The place was busy, so my wife went in to give them our name and I just found a spot outside in the grass under some trees where I could relax.
In a few minutes I heard someone say, "Is this spot taken?" I turned to see who it was, and it was Pat Day. What a great guy! We had an amazing unhurried conversion. He told me he always wished he'd had a ring to commemorate his Derby win.”
In 2016, Moore realized that realized that 2017 would be the 25th anniversary of his Derby win.
He started designing a ring for Day. He wanted to incorporate a cross in the ring because of the importance of faith in Day’s life. In addition, he added the silks and the Churchill Downs/Kentucky Derby icons. He used an oval shape to represent the track and the rose/ and horseshoe represented the race. “The silks and horse's name, Lil E. Tee mark one side of the ring and the other, the Churchill Downs spires mark.”
By the time the video ended, there wasn’t a dry eye in the hall. Day was quietly wiping tears off his face and the audience gave him a standing ovation when Moore presented him with the ring. In his traditional humble and gracious manner, Day gave a very brief but heartfelt thank you as he gave thanks to God and said that his journey wouldn’t have been possible without the love of his wife.
At the end of the afternoon, Lukas returned to the Great Hall dressed in sartorial splendor in a suit. He seems to seamlessly slip from cowboy to corporate. The hall was filled with a bounty of his career trophies including his five Derby rings. There were a series of tributes given including an honor from Louisville’s Mayor Greg Fischer. The crowd gave Lukas repeated standing ovations. Lukas stood and shared that he has always believed in the importance of the Kentucky Derby Museum. He has been an active supporter of the museum and played a large role in the development of their series “It’s My Derby.” He announced that he was giving the museum his personal Thoroughbred collection from his career.
This was an astounding announcement. I had seen his trophy collection many years ago on TV and the memory of that collection has remained with me for decades. The extensive collection includes four Kentucky Derby and four Kentucky Oaks trophies, his Breeders’ Cup trophies, a bronze sculpture of Serena’s Song by artist Nina Kaiser, his Eclipse awards, personal photographs and more. He said “When I was considering a permanent home for my collection the museum was an ideal fit to protect and showcase my legacy for many years to come.”
Perhaps the young fans who were there will someday come to a Fan Fest in the future and will show their children the trophies of D. Wayne Lukas. The fans who were here left with an amazing wealth of memories. Every fan who was at the Fan Fest couldn’t help but feel special, whether they acquired special signed memorabilia or photographs with Lukas, Day, Borel and Nafzger.
Throughout the day fans experienced all that is great about the Kentucky Derby. For them, it truly is the greatest two minutes in the world. They cheered, laughed and shared tears of joy with their heroes. They know the importance of the history of the sport and each has their own unique Derby story to share. Throughout their stories, there is the commonality of the love of the sport and the love of the horse. This bond is shared with the jockeys, trainers and all who bring the Kentucky Derby to life on the first Saturday in May. If one can’t make it to the Derby, there is the Kentucky Derby Museum to share the experience year round. Events like Fan Fest bring out the fan in everyone and develop fans for the future. It’s well worth the journey whether one is local or making the drive during the middle of the night to arrive at sunrise to spend the day with the Derby horses, trainers and jockeys and enjoy the amazing history of the Kentucky Derby. It is indeed “The Greatest Race” and Fan Fest provides a memorable experience that one will long remember.