Behind the Scenes with ‘Derby for Dummies’ at Churchill Downs

Pop Culture
Daniel Sechtin, left, with WHAS meteorologist Kaitlynn Fish early morning on the backside at Churchill Downs with Rob Harris, seated.. (Photo provided by WHAS)

The minute I heard their voices, I knew exactly who they were and yet I had never met them before. I saw them on TV the night before. Local Louisville station WHAS was featuring “Derby for Dummies” and sending two of their newest employees to the Kentucky Derby for the first time. It’s easy to pick out a newbie at the Derby. There is a certain level of excitement in their voice and an aura about them that radiates joy and excitement. I was standing at the rail on the backside for the morning workouts and turned around to check them out. I said “I KNOW YOU! You are the Derby for Dummies guys from WHAS.”

Daniel Sechtin (Julie June Stewart photo)

They were thrilled! We introduced ourselves. I am so focused on the horses and getting my camera ready that I didn’t realize that they were filming the encounter on their Facebook Live. I was dazzled by the two young men. I certainly was dazzled by their movie-star smiles and countenance.

Daniel Sechtin is the morning anchor for WHAS11. This young man was born for the news business and is a natural talent. He looks you in the eye and smiles. You feel his joy and enthusiasm. Despite all the hullaballoo of being on the backside, he can engage in a comfortable conversation while maintaining his situational awareness about him. 

He is young but that is not a hindrance by any means. He is living his dream. “Since I was 16 years old, I wanted to be a news anchor. I started a news show at my high school and then I started getting internships and getting coffee for people and carrying tripods. And if you are an intern, then you better be the best ‘carrying tripods person’ and the ‘best coffee maker.’ I tried to be those things. I moved to Knoxville, Tenn. and was a weekend anchor there. I moved to Louisville three weeks ago.“  He was recently honored by Associated Press as Tennessee’s Anchor of the Year for 2018. In addition, he is an Emmy and Murrow Award-winning television anchor. He moved to Louisville from Knoxville. Young? Not an issue! His journalism experience includes working with CNN and Voice of America and he has been on air covering breaking news such as the Charleston, S.C. church shooting and the Gatlinburg wildfires. 

Derby for Dummies was Rob Harris’s idea. It has been popular segment. He said: “It’s a really good idea because we wanted to be up front with people. Not pretending to be experts even though we are news reporters. We are Derby newbies. And Derby Dummies has a ring to it!” Plus, he likes alliteration and it works! Harris is sharp and relaxed. He is a very easy person to talk with, and you find yourself wanting to hear more. Lots more!

Rob Harris, left, and Daniel Sechtin from WHAS. (Julie June Stewart photo)

Harris is a morning reporter with WHAS11 and specializes in general-assignment reporting. Previously, he worked at their sister station KREM2 in Spokane, Wash. He graduated magna cum laude from Gonzaga University, where he studied broadcast media and political science. Prior to working at WHAS11, he was a reporter with KIDY FOX in San Angelo, Texas. Unlike Schetin, Harris wasn’t sure what he wanted to be or where he wanted to go when he was in high school. 

“I was the opposite of Daniel. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. It was actually a counselor in high school who put it together. I was that loud mouth in class who would never shut up and asked a million questions. But I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I also had this interest in cameras. She was the one that said ‘Oh, you are kind of a loud mouth in class and you like technology. You should think about being a reporter.’ And that’s how I ended up becoming one. It wasn’t one of those things where I dreamt about it my whole life. I love what I do now.” That is apparent because he recently won an Associated Press award for best political coverage. 

As we stand and chat about being a newbie at the Kentucky Derby, I give them a few tips. I thought they should meet one of the most famous horses on the backside. Harley is a racehorse escort for Thoroughbreds as they go to the gate. In the industry, they are known as ponies. I didn’t tell this to the guys because I wanted them to have an adventure. OK. I kind of set them up. I simply said: “Don’t miss going to the pony barn and make sure you meet Harley! Then I waited for their Facebook Live broadcast.  They didn’t know that a “pony” in the horse racing industry is a full-size horse. Harley is an American Sugar Bush Harlequin Draft horse and is the largest horse on the backside. He was recently honored at Breyer Fest at the Kentucky Horse Park and is an extremely popular Breyer Horse Model.  

A selfie with Harley.

Schetin grinned his dazzling morning anchor smile and said, “We were both so confused because when someone says, ‘Go look at this pony.’ What is it like? A two-foot-tall pony? No, He’s really big. To us, that was a big ol’ horse!” Harris continued: “When I hear pony, I think of Lil Sebastian from ‘Parks and Recreation.’ To me, that’s a pony! So, we thought we had the wrong Harley. We had to have people tell us, ‘No, that IS Harley the pony’ even though he was the biggest horse that we saw here. Harley is beautiful, massive, friendly, trying to eat our hands in a nice way. But we didn’t have any peppermints.  He gave us the best selfie ever. He posed for us and it was perfect!”

I asked them what their initial impressions were of Churchill Downs. It’s always interesting to see what people focus on the first time they visit. Schetin said: “I love it here. I’ve been in awe the whole time. I am definitely embracing the Derby-for-Dummy thing and trying to soak everything in and learn. The lucky thing is that there are people like yourself and all these other people here who are experts who are willing to share what they know, and that’s been fun.”

These two are quite a team. Seamlessly, Harris continued: “Since you have people here from many different levels of knowledge, you don’t have to feel overwhelmed or underappreciated. If you come, just own the fact that you don’t know anything. There are so many people out here who will fill you in and give you the knowledge and random facts.”

It’s true. For two mornings, I watched the Derby duo interact with the crowd on the backside. They visited with kids. They interviewed folks from all around the country. For being first-timers, they blended into the environment and shared their joy.   

Were they overwhelmed by the history and grandeur of Churchill Downs? Possibly. But these two guys seem to roll with the punches and enjoy the ride. Sechtin admitted that, “It’s overwhelming. I know the history behind it, but getting to cover it from the backside. It’s amazing and overwhelming. It’s one of those places that has that sense of history that is way bigger any of us.”

Rob Harris, left, and Daniel Sechtin, right, with WHAS meteorologist Kaitlynn Fish. (Julie June Stewart photo)

What about the horses? That is the reason the backside fills up the week before the Derby. People want to see the horses. The horses are the true rock stars of the Kentucky Derby. So how did the Derby newbies like the horses and more importantly, who did they like?

Schetin knew directly which horse caught his eye. “Immediately when I saw Tacitus, I just thought, ‘Oh, my God!’ That’s the first horse I remember seeing but it might not have been the first horse I saw. And when you look at Omaha Beach, you can’t not be impressed. He’s so perfect and so beautiful. Tacitus is the horse that I truly love watching.”

Harris also knew exactly which horse moved him. “I gotta go with Omaha Beach, too. Even though he scratched, that made me fall in love with him more. I like the fact that the people are taking such good care and have such a close eye on these horses. It makes me feel better. I am an animal lover and this helps me be on board with the sport if I know that there are people watching over them and keeping them good. I like that even more.”

It’s an honor to be part of the Kentucky Derby. It’s an honor to tell the story. It’s the story of the horse, the jockeys, the owners, the trainers, the grooms, and breeders, and the farms. As newbies to the Derby, I have a feeling that Sechtin and Harris will continue Kentucky’s fine tradition of commemorating the history of the Kentucky Derby with style. I think they learned quite a bit and will be back. They are no longer Derby Dummies! They will never ever forget meeting a special “pony” named Harley who gave them a selfie of a lifetime. Well done, guys! You will never forget your first Derby!

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