The orange glow of first light warmed the horizon. The morning dew spoke of a clear, fresh day as a gentle breeze cooled the sweat on the magnificent thoroughbreds limbering out along the famous track. Conditions were perfect for preparing an unknown Derby champion.
It was two days before the 144th Kentucky Derby and morning practice had brought Churchill Downs to life. Those eager to get a close up look at the 20 horses running in the nation’s most popular horse race were milling along the track.
A mix of two years olds getting used to the track were being trotted out slowly by their jockeys while the three and four year olds were stretching out at a faster pace against the inside rail. Some horses rested at the outer railing in groups of two and three, so close you could touch their hindquarters or pet their nose. They all looked invigorated, happy to be out exercising in the crisp morning air.
As though heeding a call to join the fray, a chestnut horse standing right by us suddenly slid into a canter as the rider lifted out of her saddle pad, their pair moved so gracefully, Beau Galyean remarked “it’s like dropping in on a wave”. The athleticism, the balance, the power of this horse was breathtaking. Who was this horse? Non other than the event favorite, Justify!
Two presenters filled the gargantuan TV screen above the track to discuss the contenders, of particular interest was the import from Ireland, Mendelssohn who made his appearance later in the morning surrounded by a large entourage. The Irish horse had just come out of quarantine, and despite the fanfare looked a little uneasy having worked up quite a sweat. But by the end of the session, the second-placed favorite was appearing more settled and its paces more impressive.
Other horses making tongues wag amongst the group of cutters was Audible, who in comparison to Justify’s effortless movements, required quite a bit of urging via his jockey’s whip to get moving. While this initially put us off, we later found out, Audible was not a morning horse!
Cutters Hit Kentucky
Our group consisted of Matt and Tara Gaines, Beau and Ashley Galyean, Duncan Steele-Park and myself, with the trip hosted and organized by Gabe Reynolds and Lauren Minshall who live and train cutting horses not far from Louisville.
For many in the group, it was their first time ever to attend a horse race. Lauren grew up around thoroughbreds in Canada where her parents and grandparents bred race horses. Her step grandmother, Barb Minshall is a current well known trainer at Woodbine, Toronto. Lauren’s knowledge of the industry is extensive as was her patience answering our never ending questions.
Exploring Keeneland, Lexington
With our first impressions made, we headed out to Lexington for a broader look at the industry. Lauren took us to Keeneland, another renowned race course and the nation’s top auction house for thoroughbreds.
It’s a beautiful, tree-filled facility where many trainers work their horses, Barb included over the winter months leading up the Derby.
We visited with her and some of her racers, one of which had won a race on the Wednesday at Churchill Downs. Interestingly, these leggy horses with a reputation for being flighty and hot tempered were anything but as they were led quietly around and stood in their stalls.
The doorways had nothing but a simple crossed plastic-covered chain to keep the horses in, giving them more air and helping them to feel less hemmed in.
They appeared soft-natured and curious, keen for a pat. One playful two year old stallion had a large pink teddy bear hanging from its doorway to nuzzle. Matt Gaines couldn’t resist and got some close-up cuddle action himself. We also met Barb’s gelding, Admiralty Pier, that was racing on Derby Day in an earlier event.
Posing with American Pharaoh
From there, we drove to the esteemed Ashford Stud, owned by Coolmore Stud, the world’s largest breeder of race horses. The stately driveway lined with hundred year old trees, led onto an array of beautiful stone stables, offices and breeding facilities that over looked rolling hills carpeted with the famous lush green grass of Kentucky.
Our tour guide took us straight to the main stud stable which housed non other than American Pharaoh. Featuring a soaring cathedral ceiling, the stables held four massive stalls lined with varnished timber, filled with an overabundance of straw to soften the floor. Brass name plates announced the owner of each stall. Declaration of War was getting his daily grooming via vacuum as we entered and Uncle Mo was enjoying some downtime. A groom brought the great American Pharaoh out into the courtyard where we got a closer look and a photo with the 2015 Triple Crown Champion.
While these stallions are retired from racing and live in “luxury”, they face the arduous task of 3 live crosses a day, seven days a week. Even for the most virile, it’s a tall order. The going rate for American Pharaoh is $125,000 a service, guaranteed to a foal on the ground. With 160 mares to cross each breeding season, I would say those boys earn every cent!
Derby Day Arrives
Fast forward to Derby Day, cowboy hats, boots and buckles were swapped for fedora’s, bow ties and even the odd cigar (or two). The ladies donned some larger than life hats and spring inspired dresses and hit the track. The people watching is just as fascinating as the horses, where anything goes from crazy hats, gaudy suits and killer heels to the most refined millinery and haute couture outfits of the well-heeled and/or famous.
Yes. Unexpectedly. It. Rained. All. Day. Needless to say, it was a great excuse to stay close to the bar and sample a Mint Julep or Oaks Lily (or three or four…).
Another factor to take into account, the wet track. As each race took place, the track got sloppier and sloppier, till come Derby time, it was a mud bath! You could almost see the odds changing in the lead up to the race as horses with experience in the wet improved and others got longer. All except Justify, the horse that never raced as a two horse year old remained the firm favorite!
For most of two days, the group got an A for participation when it came to betting but an F for success when it came to winnings. But it didn’t dampen anyone’s spirit, Tara and Matt were so full of awe, they stood out in the drenching rain to watch the Derby race at the rail, keen to feel the thundering hooves of those splendid athletes striving for immortality.
It’s a simple concept: first past the post, but what an exciting flutter of emotions it creates when you have a vested interest in how it ends! With a half mile to go, Justify passed Promises Fulfilled, and looking comfortable and totally in control, took the lead and sprinted home. Whopping and hollering like mad men, we were all going off but it soon became evident who picked the winner as Beau crowed triumphantly! It was a great moment, a great day, a great experience! Thanks to Gabe and Lauren for being such great hosts and so generous with their knowledge and thanks to Beau for letting us feel successful by association!
Now what are we going to wear next year? Did anyone mention this is addictive?
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