The Churchill Downs backside comes to life a few weeks before the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. While horses are stabled there nine months out of the year, some extra special ones call the backside their home in the weeks leading up to the Derby. Most of the 20 Kentucky Derby contenders come rolling into Louisville a couple of weeks prior and the excitement begins to build.
It’s Derby time!
A day in the life of a Derby horse doesn’t change much just because they get to take a shot at the run for the roses. While every trainer has his/her own routine and way of doing things, most do not want to change their horse’s typical schedule before a race. They’ll have a security guard, a paparazzi following of fans and media, and Derby contenders most likely cause their trainers to lose sleep at night, but everything else stays the same.
The bond between a horse and human is second to none, and the bond between a horse and groom is even stronger. Grooms spend the majority of their time taking care of the horses in their care. They know them better than anyone, each quirk and character trait, what treats they like, and their favorite spot to be scratched.
Long before the sun rises, the lights get turned on in the shedrow. Each horse has its stall cleaned, temperature taken, and is inspected for any scratches or sore spots they could have developed overnight. Their water buckets are scrubbed and refilled, and they eat their last bites of hay before it’s time to train.
Imagine going to the spa every day. That’s what it’s like being a Derby horse, and a racehorse in general. From a curry comb to a hard brush to a soft brush and shiny spray for their mane and tails, these horses get it all. No speck of dirt can be seen on their polished coats when it’s time to head to the racetrack. Their yellow Kentucky Derby saddle towels are placed over their backs, proudly displaying the name of each horse. Their girths are tightened and bridles are put on, and then it’s go time.
After walking a few rounds in the shedrow, the exercise rider is given a leg up onto the racehorse and often gives their horse a pat on the neck once settled. Each horse usually has the same rider every day, so they know each other through and through.
Some horses will be escorted to the track with a pony who plays the role of a friend or babysitter. Training schedules differ by the day and horse, but most go out and have a routine gallop, usually somewhere around a mile and a half. A few days a week the horse will stop by the starting gate and practice standing. The more comfortable and acclimated a horse is in the starting gate, the better. Due to the Kentucky Derby having a field of 20 horses, some will have to stand for a longer time in the gate than others, which is all the more reason to make sure a horse is calm and not fractious when standing.
Upon returning to the barn, the horse will be unsaddled and hand-walked a few laps around the shedrow before receiving a bath. Suds of soap cover their coats as they are lathered in a pleasant aroma. Photographers stand close by, snapping shots of the Derby hopeful. Once bath time is over, they go back into the shedrow and are hand-walked for 25 minutes before returning to their stalls, bedded with straw fit for a king, with oodles of peppermints waiting to be devoured. The noisiest part of the morning follows not long after, feed time. You always know when the grain cart is being wheeled around the barn.
Later in the afternoon, the grooms return to pick stalls and feed again. Some horses will be hand-walked to stretch their legs and sometimes get to spend time grazing in the sun, chowing down on nutritious Kentucky grass. Then it’s back to their stalls, where a security officer watches guard on the hopeful Kentucky Derby champion.
Soon, the next Kentucky Derby winner will be covered in a blanket of roses in front of thousands of cheering fans. It’s a privilege and everyone’s dream to get to take part in the Kentucky Derby. For many, it’s a dream that never comes true. While there can only be one official Derby winner, I can guarantee you that every horse that steps foot on that racetrack is a winner in the eyes of those who love him.