Learning to Read at the Racetrack: A Churchill Downs Tradition

The Life
I love to wander through the crowds at the Kentucky Oaks and Derby to people-watch. I have a keen appreciation for fans who wear Derby-related clothing, equine jewelry, and whimsical hats. I noticed Libby Ludwig standing in line to have her photo taken at
Terry and Libby Ludwig are horse racing and Churchill Downs regulars. (Julie June Stewart photo)

I love to wander through the crowds at the Longines Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve to people-watch. I have a keen appreciation for fans who wear Derby-related clothing, equine jewelry, and whimsical hats. I noticed Libby Ludwig standing in line to have her photo taken at the Ram truck display (the official truck of the Kentucky Derby). She was wearing a unique white dress that artfully featured Churchill Downs' twin spires with a jockey and a horse on the rail. The dress? Fabulous! Perfect! She said that she found it online. She completed her outfit with track boots for the rain and a perfect grey feathered fascinator with perky feathers.

Ludwig's full Oaks day ensemble
Ludwig's full Oaks day ensemble (Julie June Stewart photo)

We continued chatting because I could sense a strong connection between Ludwig and Churchill Downs. It turns out that she has been coming to Churchill Downs since she was a small child. She looked at the spires. “This is where I learned how to read.” I closed my eyes to picture her walking hand-in-hand with her dad through the gates to the track. “My father loved horse racing and he would come to Churchill Downs. We lived in Indianapolis and when I was 4, he started to bring me along. I would pack up my Barbie dolls and we would stop in downtown Indianapolis. He would get a Daily Racing Form from ‘Poison Annie,’ the person he liked to get them from. That was his nickname for her.” 

“On the way down, my dad (Jim Bradford) would have me try to read the names and the odds of the horses. I did that while we listened to Tony Bennett music in the background.”  At this point, we stop for a minute because both Libby and I are getting emotional. I absolutely love the image of her and her dad cruising down the highway listening to Tony Bennett on their way to the track. Very classy!

Libby composed herself. “It almost makes me cry. We would come to Churchill Downs and go to an outside box. I would get a roast beef sandwich. He always gave me $20 to bet so I had $2 for every race plus the daily double. He would also give me money to tip the nice lady in the washroom which was big deal.”

Libby stood next to her husband Terry Ludwig and talked about how important horse racing is to their entire family. They were inspired by Justify’s Kentucky Derby win last year and went to the Preakness and Belmont for the Triple Crown. They are a remarkable horse racing family. “Call to the Post” was played at both her mom and dad’s memorials and at their wedding ceremony. “(It’s) interesting that our whole family of 26 goes to an off-track betting parlor and plays Gulfstream every Dec. 26!”

A boy learns to read a program on Oaks day
A boy learns to read a program on Oaks day (Julie June Stewart photo)

Horse racing fans come from every walk of life. Every person at the track has their own unique story of where they came from and how they arrived at the track.  I wished the Ludwigs a happy Derby and headed to the press room. It was ironic that tucked around the corner, in a quiet place under the grandstand, I witnessed an iconic moment. There was an elderly gentleman bent over with an open program teaching a young boy how to read his program.  He was pointing out the past performances and explaining them to him. 

The young boy may not remember the exact circumstances. Twenty years from now, he might stare at the twin spires and remember that his grandfather taught him how to read the racing form. He will be one of the lucky ones like Libby Ludwig and her father. Just like her father, Ludwig also taught her son Ben Roeger to read the horses' past performances. Joyfully, he is at the Derby with her today. It’s a beautiful circle of life to know that the love of horse racing continues to be passed down from generation to generation. They are the future of horse racing and it’s a blessing to see them at Churchill Downs enjoying the Kentucky Derby.

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