Derby week always brings up tons of memories for me: Arkansas Derby hero Smarty Jones, the pace meltdown that led to the defeat of should have been Triple Crown winner Afleet Alex, the impressions of greatness left by Barbaro, my perfect trifecta pick in the 2008 Derby of Big Brown, Eight Belles, and Dennis of Cork (and the tragic aftermath), Mine That Bird’s incomprehensible win (at least at the time), California Chrome charging to the wire just like he had in my dream the week before, and the start of of the end of the Triple Crown drought by the now great American Pharoah (and my doubts of him). My biggest, but not the most profound, Derby memory was my first (and probably only) pilgrimage to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, 2013. Here’s a flashblack blog to my experience that amazing (and cold and rainy) weekend.
It was my first Kentucky Derby. For a girl whose heroes are Cigar, Silver Charm, Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Curlin, Rachel Alexandra, and Zenyatta it was the ultimate vacation. I cannot begin to explain how excited I was.
During the morning works, the horses were shiny and happy as they jogged and galloped by. There was plenty of yelling between exercise riders and lots of excitement from the fans at the rail who showed up early to watch the horses.
And then the Derby and Oaks horses came out. Without their saddle cloths announcing they were special, they looked just like every other hard working animal out there. What sets them apart? Breeding? Sometimes. Connections and money? Rarely. Conformation? Maybe. It’s not always obvious why a horse can do great things while the horse next to him won’t. They all give us what they can.
The funny thing about the Kentucky Derby is that it’s all glitz, history, press and money…but in the end it is really only about horses. As high-flying as the 19 this year are, they are still animals who sleep in straw, eat hay and lay in their own poop. They cannot begin to fathom all they have come to symbolize.
Without our love of racing, these horses wouldn’t exist. Without the work of breeders, owners and trainers they would never race. Without the passion of individuals who care about the horse for the sake of the horse, they end up in horrible situations. The horses owe us something, but we owe them much more.
I made visits to Old Friends, Adena and Three Chimneys as well as a trip to the Kentucky Horse Park to visit my old love Cigar. Adena, Old Friends and Neigh Savers worked together to help a horse named Racketeer. He was a graded stakes runner bred by Adena who earned over $400,000 in his career and he was found in a bad situation about to go worse. Thanks to the efforts of everyone involved he was saved and thanks to Adena Springs he was shipped back home to Kentucky and transferred to Old Friends. While I didn’t get to visit him, I was informed that he’s doing very well and is happy. Adena has set the bar high for breeders for aftercare, and I can only hope for more owners to take these responsibilities and put us (aftercare organizations) happily out of business.
Derby day was cold, rainy and bleak. It wasn’t exactly what I’d been dreaming of my whole life, but it was still a real good time. Wise Dan demolished the field in the Woodford Reserve in the pouring rain and left me wondering if that was the best race we’d see all day. Right before the Derby, nature decided to celebrate the Derby with us and it stopped raining. People crawled out of every nook to find their wet, empty seats waiting for them. The mass of people was unlike anything I’ve ever seen or am likely to see again. Orb was impressive and was a very popular winner (though I have to admit I was on Revolutionary and Palace Malice). The Derby is hard to put into words. It is big. It’s exciting. It’s grand. It’s crazy. And then it’s over and your not sure if you should feel happy, sad, excited or disappointed that it’s over. It’s an experience.
On Sunday at 11:00, I was lucky enough to be the guest of Lisa and Calvin Borel (3 time Derby winning jockey) for a 10 minute preview of the Mine That Bird movie. I think we (me and my husband) were the only people in the room not directly connected with the horse or with the making of the movie. It was special and I will never forget it. I was lucky enough to go visit Mine That Bird at the Derby Museum with all of his connections and go in the paddock with him. Bird is a ham and really has a show stealing personality and it was an honor to be near him. The Borel’s are truly gracious, kind and sincere people and I’m glad to have met them.
It was a crazy 3 days and an experience that is unforgettable. I was surprised at my reaction to the race and the realization that the ones we save are not that different from these being cheered and celebrated by millions for two short minutes. Working with OTTBs has changed my perspective on racing. I appreciate and love it more because in the end the least horse and the champions will both give us their best try and that is what it is all about.