Thursday, May 10, 2012

Keeping pace at the Kentucky Derby

Although I had been to Churchill Downs previously, nothing could quite prepare me for the rush that was the Kentucky Derby. My first trip to Louisville, to see the Stephen Foster in 2009, was a quiet, working vacation. In November, I was fortunate to attend the Breeders' Cup and as much a rush as that two-day event was, the Derby-Oaks media crush was a different beast altogether.

It's Derby time!

I arrived in Louisville at 6AM on Thursday morning, having driven through the night with my friend, and fellow writer, Gene Kershner of the Buffalo News.

The Churchill Downs backstretch, dark but floodlit, was a buzz of activity. Much of the morning action was similar to what you'd see at any racetrack - horses galloping or turning left in the shed row - but then a horse with a Kentucky Oaks or Kentucky Derby saddlecloth would walk by and you immediately would hear the whispers, 'that's Trinniberg...' or, 'there goes On Fire Baby...' followed by the clicking of cameras and an entourage of writers taking notes.

The Derby horses were in demand. It didn't matter if the contender's morning line odds were 9-2, like Union Rags, or 30-1 like Mark Casse's Prospective; each horse was important in the eyes of the media. On that first morning, I followed Prospective to the track to watch him train (along with dozens of other assembled media) and take photos and video.

When Prospective's morning work was completed, I followed the horse back to the barn and prepared to interview Casse - - but there was a line-up. Even though his horse was 30-1, HRTV was first in line to capture Casse's thoughts on tape. I followed HRTV with a video interview of my own as two more writers waited patiently for me to finish. Casse, who’s done his fair share of interviews, smiled and answered everyone's question thoughtfully - - even the ones he'd no doubt been asked many times before.

Across the way from Casse's barn was an overflow barn housing many of the Kentucky Oaks contenders. Hard Not to Like, Gail Cox's gorgeous grey, was being walked along the shed row awaiting the arrival of exercise rider David Meah. The English-born rider, based in California with trainer Doug O'Neill, has been riding for 15 years.

Gotta love the hats!

When Meah arrived, he quickly conferred with Cox, and then headed to the track aboard the doe-eyed grey. Hard Not to Like, like many horses, enjoys having a moment to stand and watch her fellow athletes train. Amidst the hubbub of activity, oddly fitting that to find a quiet moment, the best opportunity was likely on top a horse standing on the track.

When Meah and Hard Not to Like return to the barn, I ask the rider how the filly handled the surface.

"She moved very well," offered Meah.

And then turning to Cox, he added, "She's a beautiful filly."

The next moment should have been a dramatic one for my weekend wagering. I asked Meah what brought him to Louisville and he advised that he was the exercise rider for I'll Have Another.

When I questioned Meah about I'll Have Another having to leave from Post 19, from which no horse had ever won the Kentucky Derby, the exercise rider seemed quite content with both the tactical speed of the horse and the capability of jockey Mario Gutierrez to overcome the hindrance.


My Oaks day started with the news that Robby Albarado, the scheduled rider for Hard Not to Like, had been arrested. At 10AM the Twitterverse exploded with tweets and re-tweets with news regarding the arrest, followed by speculation on who would take over the Oaks mount.

All of this happened as I was sitting in a shuttle bus taking myself and number of writers to the track. With an eye to getting the scoop on the new rider, I called Gail Cox and, as we spoke, her other line went off - - presumably the agent for Rafael Bejerano. A few minutes later Gail texted back that Bejerano was indeed the new rider for Hard Not to Like, but amazingly, the information was already confirmed on Twitter, at 10:16AM, by the DRF's Byron King. News travels fast at the racetrack.

The Oaks card was spectacular.

Juanita won the first stakes races of the day, the G2 La Troienne, at 16-1.

That stunning effort was followed by Contested absolutely crushing the field in the G3 Eight Belles Stakes. I LOVE the notes on the Equibase chart for this race, "CONTESTED hopped a bit at the start, lost her footing several strides later, quickly gained a forward position on her own courage, challenged the leader from the four path when ready leaving the turn and drew off under steady urging."

Give the chart caller an A+ for that effort.

Stephanie's Kitten took the Edgewood Stakes with a classy stalk and pounce effort, followed by Successful Dan continuing his dominance on the Churchill Downs main track to win the Alysheba Stakes for trainer Charles Lopresti.
Stephanie's Kitten enjoyed a purr-fect trip!

With the field preparing for the American Turf Stakes, the track announcer advised that a storm was on its way and that patrons should calmly seek shelter. In the end, we got a little bit of rain but managed to avoid the expected hail and high winds as the storm sailed south.

Following the slight delay, Bejerano won the American Turf with Silver Max. I was hoping this would be a good omen for Hard Not to Like.

I quickly rushed down to track side at this point to watch the Oaks horses walk over to the paddock, joined by a parade of cancer survivors. You can watch the walkover, including the post parade and race footage in the video below.

My vantage point for the Oaks, at trackside just beside the winner's circle ,was spectacular. A vocal crowd cheered from start to finish as Broadway's Alibi, piloted by John Velazquez, led the field over the fast, but sealed, surface with Believe You Can, ridden by Rosie Napravnik, hot on their heels. Hard Not to Like, who bobbled at the start, was behind horses and covered in mud as the front-running duo quickly separated themselves from the rest of the field.

As Broadway's Alibi and Believe You Can turned for home, the crowd roared its approval. A pair of voices distinguished themselves from the rest of the crowd as I watched the fillies fly to the finish.
Do you believe?

"Come on ROSIE," bellowed one man.

"Come on JOHN," a woman screamed.

The volume and intensity of their cries increased as the fillies reached the wire with Napravnik prevailing, becoming the first female rider to win the Kentucky Oaks. Hard Not to Like, tenacious in defeat, rallied home a mud-splattered sixth.


Derby day blurred by at great pace. I spent the morning filing my final copy for both Woodbine and my blog and then hunkered down to handicap the Pick 4 ending on the Derby.

As I worked, a number of friends from the Twitterverse stopped by to say hello and offer their insights. I barely lifted my head to watch the first four races as I focused on the task at hand, stopping only to answer the question of the day, "Who do you like in the Derby?"

I landed on Gemologist as my top pick with Union Rags, Bodemeister and Went the Day Well underneath.
Happy Derby!

Gemologist was undefeated, two for two at Churchill Downs, and one of my fave jocks, Javier Castellano, in the irons. The vast majority of folks I spoke to were split between Union Rags and Bodemeister - - and most everyone was convinced that Hansen was the horse to be tossed off the ticket.

Great Attack would win the first added-money event of the day, the Twin Spires Turf, catching Bridgetown deep in the stretch. I was happy to watch Shackleford, with his familiar white blaze, maintain his lead from the top of the stretch through the wire to win the Churchill Downs Stakes. Hungry Island took the Distaff Turf Mile with favoured Marketing Mix fading to finish fourth.

Groupie Doll then put in what, to this point on the card, was the performance of the day with a dominating front-running effort to win the Humana Distaff by seven and a quarter lengths in 1:20.44. Whoosh!

I made my way down to track side to watch the Woodford Reserve and watched in awe as Little Mike, expected to be part of a bitter pace duel in a speed-laden field, ran uncontested on the front end to a two and a half length victory at 12-1. Based on the faces in the crowd, that result ripped quite a few tickets.

With the Derby up next, I made the long walk from the grandstand to the backstretch with a few other writers to observe the tradition of the Kentucky Derby walk over. It's quite a scene to behold as the Derby horses leave their barn and make their way through the gap to the chute to stretch their legs before making the walk to the paddock.

Hats off to the ladies!

Most of the backstretch workers are on hand to watch and as each horse enters the gap, they're given a polite cheer and words of encouragement. It was touching to hear the kind words of support put forward.

When the time comes to start the walk to the track, the trainer, owners and other connections fall in beside their horse and make the procession to the paddock. What starts as a solemn march soon becomes a rollicking ride as each step brings the horses closer to the grandstand who scream, cheer and, in my favourite pre-race moment, one fan yelled at Hansen, "It's a unicorn!"

I managed to capture that bit of magic on tape and you can watch the Derby walk over including footage of the race itself in the video below.

What will stick with me to my dying day regarding Kentucky Derby 138 is that I didn't manage to put so much as a penny on I'll Have Another. I thought his post position was too much to overcome. But, this was destined to be a Derby weekend of firsts as Napravnik became the first female rider to win the Oaks and I'll Have Another became the first horse to win from post 19. That the horse was owned by Windsor, Ontario-born businessman J. Paul Reddam and ridden by jockey Mario Gutierrez, who got his start in Canada at Hastings Race Course in Vancouver only make the victory sting that much more.

And if that's not enough, I'll Have Another's sire Flower Alley, now standing at Three Chimneys, was raced by Canadian Eugene Melnyk.

I took my fair share of stick for not having bet on the 'Canadian' horse.

The race itself was phenomenal. I watched, once more, from the rail beside the winner's circle standing beside the grooms for I'll Have Another. The roar of the crowd chased the horses from the gate through the first turn and the grooms beside me high-fived as Gutierrez, with a bit of riding genius, manoeuvred I'll Have Another into a nice gap behind the front-running pack while avoiding all of the expected traffic. (I guess David Meah's confidence in horse and rider was well founded!)

Prospective and Luis Contreras

Prospective, in the preferred post 12, was bumped at the start, clipped heels and stumbled nearly losing rider Luis Contreras who needed all of his strength to stay aboard.

Bodemeister led the field through impossible fractions to maintain of :22.32, :45.39 and 1:09.80 as he outsprinted the sprinter Trinniberg who chased in vain.

How fast was the early pace? Here's New York Post scribe Ray Kerrison's assessment:
Some comparisons may illuminate the magnitude of his predicament. When Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby in 1973, the pacemaker, Shecky Greene, ran the opening six furlongs in 1:11.4. When Seattle Slew and Affirmed won their Derbies, the pacemakers got the six in 1:10.4. Spectacular Bid’s pacemaker, General Assembly, got to the 6f in 1:12.2

On Saturday, Bodemeister whistled by the six furlongs in 1:09.8. That’s brutal. Crazy. Bodemeister was running faster than four of the greatest horses of the 20th century, including three Triple Crown winners. That he lost under those conditions should surprise nobody; that he held on for second was stunning.

The grooms beside me didn't care that they chugged home the last quarter in :26.80. When I'll Have Another finally brushed past the gallant Bodemeister, the group erupted!

As the connections celebrated, I got to work on filing my stakes recap and by 9:30PM Gene and I were on the road home. My time in Louisville went by all too quickly, but as far as Derby experiences go...I'll Have Another!

Team O'Neill celebrates the Derby win!

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