This year’s Kentucky Derby was like no other because the weather refused to cooperate. Usually the weather prevails during the Derby and the sun can make a brief appearance after the call to the post. This year, the heavens opened up and it poured rain. It was not just a sprinkle, nor was it a shower. It didn’t mist or drizzle. It out and out poured rain and drenched everything. The National Weather Service said that it was a record-setting 3.15 inches of rain on the day but the amount of rain didn’t really matter. It was wet! But a challenge always brings out the best in Kentucky Derby fans. They were not going to let rain ruin their festivities. They came to witness history. They came to have a fabulous time. Most importantly, you could tell that they planned ahead and came prepared.
Churchill Downs on Derby morning made one feel like they were entering a surreal version of the childhood game Candy Land. It seemed that most of the 157,000 folks in attendance were wearing ponchos and it was beautiful swirl that resembled a sherbet palette. Clear plastic ponchos allowed one’s Derby finery to be seen in muted glory but many fans chose their ponchos to accessorize their Derby finery. Ponchos were seen in soft pink, muted yellow, soft apricot, and corals with a pop of color here and there of lime green. It was beautiful in a strange way to see everyone dressed up in their finest underneath very practical and colorful rain ponchos.
Kentucky Derby fans are the best! They are resilient. They are creative. They proudly wear their Derby hat on top of their plastic hoods. They choose a brilliant pink fascinator to match their poncho. The dazzling plumage of many still resided underneath the protective cover of the grandstands, clubhouse and Millionaires Row. But in the paddock and along the rail the fans tossed their cares into the rain and celebrated. They were there to have fun and witness history. It didn’t matter if the skies had opened up and drenched them. Derby day is Derby day and tradition to its fans. The show simply must go on.
Something amazing happened during the National Anthem. The mounted police unit was standing sharply on the track and the horses had their ears pricked at attention. While Pentatonix sang their rich a cappella harmonies; it was like being embraced by a warm dry hug and the crowd roared in appreciation. The escort ponies on the track had been festooned in the colors of their assigned Derby horses. The photographers valiantly tried to protect their cameras from the elements.
In the media center, the most repeated phrase was “Curlin’s Classic” as they compared Derby track conditions to the legendary monsoon when Curlin won the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic. A sense of camaraderie fills the media center as rain gear is shared. Unknowingly, everyone walks with a certain swagger when outfitted head to toe in rain gear and track boots. They are there to tell the story and capture history. Outside, one photographer borrowed a rake and vigilantly tried to create a ditch to drain the water away from the battery of remote cameras positioned under the rail at the finish line.
There were smiles and laughter everywhere. The Derby crowd maintained their spirits. New friendships were quickly made by the huddled masses in between races as they gathered anywhere they could find cover. The hardcore simply sat in their seats impervious to the rain and did their handicapping on their phones and tablets. Next to the tunnel, the usual crowd gathered to feed the track ponies peppermints which were appreciated. They unleashed their pride in being at the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby and were bold, courageous, and dauntless in their love. Tradition is tradition.
Soon it was time for the traditional walkover from the barns to the paddock. Hundreds of connections started the slow progression of walking with the horses on the track. Some wore protective covering (plastic bags) on their feet. Others were dressed in more practical barn clothing. The more spirited eschewed footwear and danced along the way barefoot. Owner Barbara Banke of Stonestreet Stables was absolutely radiant as she walked alongside the other connections of Good Magic while holding a single red rose in one hand and a baseball cap in the other. Behind her, a single look at trainer Chad Brown told the story of his displeasure at the weather conditions.
Hofburg and Lone Sailor led the parade. Mendelssohn announced his annoyance loudly and whipped his tail back and forth as he wrestled his grooms down the track. Some horses were extremely professional and undaunted by the clamor from the crowd as they passed. Others were extremely aware that this race is different and were on their toes.
With trainer Bob Baffert waiting in the paddock, Justify and his handlers walked by quickly. Bravazo had to stop and survey the crowd turning his head and staring. My Boy Jack’s ears were perked forward as he leaned toward Julie Clark (Keith Desormeaux’s assistant trainer) as she kept one hand protectively on his chest and guided him towards the tunnel. Bolt d’Oro quietly walked by with his ears stuffed with cotton to reduce the noise and his breathing strip prominently adhered across his nose. Todd Pletcher and his posse of four Derby horses walked without incident. Combatant was a crowd favorite in his special camouflage blanket honoring the nation’s veterans. The horses gave the awaiting photographers and the crowd some serious side eye glances but they made it to the paddock without incident as most of the connections poured into the owners’ suites.
It’s easy to lose concept of time during the Kentucky Derby. Time plays tricks on your brain. It drags by slowly and then suddenly feels like the fast forward button has been accelerated. Now the horses are in the post parade. The crowd cheers as bugler Steve Buttleman plays the call to the post. It’s an automatic primal response to cry during “My Old Kentucky Home”: 157,000 souls are united as they sing while hoisting their mint juleps. They are proud that they are present to watch the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby. So they sing with their hearts and it’s incomparable to any other moment in sports.
The jockeys are prepared with multiple goggles for the mud that will soon be flung. They are “sitting chilly” on their horses as they pass the crowd with their beribboned pony escorts. The media and photographers have lined the rail in their assigned spots and focus their cameras underneath their protective plastic coverings. Jockey Robby Albarado gives Free Drop Billy a comforting rub on his mane. Audible’s ears are pinned back and his tail is swishing back and forth as he goes by on his toes. Good Magic and Jose Ortiz take it in stride. Mike Smith has his head down as he works his fingers through Justify’s mane.
Lone Sailor keeps his distance from his pony while Hofburg leans into his pony who happens to be the spectacular Harley. Mendelssohn walks by sans pony with his two handlers as Ryan Moore seems to unhappily peer into the distance at the track conditions. Jockey Drayden Van Dyke is riding in his first Derby. He lifts his head and surveys the crowd with a small smile. He seems centered, relaxed, and ready for his ride on Instilled Regard. The rest of the horses pass by calmly.
While waiting for the start, the rain continues relentlessly. At times the drops bounce 2 to 3 inches off the ground in the mud puddles made by the passing hooves. The signal is given and the photographers on the track sit down in the mud underneath the rail and steady their cameras. The clamor of the crowd declares that the run for the roses has begun.
It’s a sea of flying mud as the horses pass by for the first time. The horses up front have very little mud on them while the back of the pack is pelted. The crowd exhorts their favorites as they go around the track. It may be the fastest two minutes in sports but it feels like mere seconds. It is unbelievable how loud a crowd of that size can get as the horses come around the final turn and hit the stretch.
The lights come on at the finish line and everyone is focused. It’s Justify and Mike Smith! Bob Baffert has won his fifth Derby. Good Magic and Jose Ortiz ran a remarkable race for second. Castellano brought Audible in for third. Remarkably, Van Dyke rode an amazing race for his first Derby and earned fourth place with Instilled Regard.
The photographers on the track take off in a fast gallop as they run down the track. Some are assigned to the winner’s circle and they need to pull out their ladders. Others are assigned trackside. Everyone is hustling to get photos of the returning jockeys and horses as grooms, trainers and connections greet them. The last to return is the most victorious. Mike Smith gives thanks as Justify stands peacefully in the torrential rain. They made a victory lap to the end of the grandstand to the cheering of the crowd.
Bob Baffert made it to the side of Justify and supervised the placing of the garland of roses. Then they slipped into the crowded huddle for the trophy ceremony. Afterwards, Justify was escorted down the track, once again to the delight of the waiting crowd.
Despite the weather conditions, it was a magnificent Derby. The crowds adapted to the conditions and didn’t let it impede their delight. The next morning Baffert led Justify out of Barn 33 to the milling crowd of media and fans. His pride was justified as he looked up and said “You better get used to this. This is your new life.” Justify was a little frisky as he came out of the barn and surveyed the crowd. He then made the same move that American Pharoah did the day after he won the Derby in 2015.
He raised his head and posed regally for the cameras. He is now part of horse racing’s elite. Those present know that they witnessed a significant race. One for the books. One that is part of history. And everyone that was there will smile knowingly in the years to come and say “I was there. I made it through the day and lived to tell the tale.” Justifiably what a tale it was!