Friday Morning Line at Churchill Downs
5:35 p.m."That smell. It smells like...victory."On Kentucky Oaks day, if you're lucky enough, try to get down near the winner's circle before the big race.A few minutes prior to post time, a pair of large white boxes--large enough to be coffins--are paraded in. They contain the winner's blanket of lilies and another lily display that is set up in the winner's circle.When they pop open those boxes, it hits you with an overpowering scent. There is no better smell on Oaks day than those fresh lilies.With the lilies comes the security detail. One of those keeping the peace is David Osborne. His job for the Oaks is to effort the winning connections back to the auxiliary press box for the post-race press party. It's his 10th "official" Oaks and tomorrow will be his 12th "official" Derby.The 32-year-old worked the security detail for the weekend before he was officially old enough to do it. His uncle was the security director for the state racing commission.On Derby day, Osborne has a more important gig. He's in charge of getting the garland of roses for the Derby winner to the winner's circle, and after the race, out of the winner's circle.
4:00Oonagh Maccool romps to the easiest kind of win against a fairly tough field in the Louisville Breeders' Cup Handicap. After starting her career in England, the 4-year-old filly is now three for three on dirt in the U.S.She was sent off at 8-5, so her winning is not that big a deal. What is a big deal is that it was the eighth race of the day and trainer Todd Pletcher has saddled four winners so far.
3:30 p.m."This is my first Derby as a married man," reports Mike Pegram from his box, which happens to be right on the finish line on the second level.Pegram, who won not only the Derby, but the Preakness in 1998 with Real Quiet, says he got hitched two weeks ago today, April 21, at his home in Paradise Valley, Ariz. His new bride's name is Mary Ellen."We got married at six o'clock in the morning," he says, "and we went right to the airport to go to Cabo (San Lucas, in Mexico) for our honeymoon."Pegram is enjoying his Oaks day with his signature Coors Light. He enjoyed the Oaks a little more in 1999 when he won the race with the appropriately named Silverbulletday.
It Ain't the Breeders' Cup
2:20 p.m.All of a sudden -- presto!--in the center of the Joe Hirsch Press Box at Churchill Downs, there it is: the Stanley Cup. Not just any Stanley Cup, but the Stanley Cup.The Cup being on display here is part of a cross-promotion by NBC, the network which will televise both the National Hockey League playoffs and tomorrow's Derby.It's placed on a table with the gold Kentucky Derby trophy for media members to take photos. It towers over the Derby trophy in size, but not stature. While a Derby trophy will fit on your mantle, only one of some 35,000-odd foals in a given year will win the Derby. Every year -- except last year -- 30 teams will skate for the Cup.With the Cup is Philadelphia Flyer player Chris Therien. He's one of the 17 West Point Thoroughbreds syndicate owners of Derby starter Flashy Bull. Therien is flanked by West Point head Terry Finley.Therien has had a few other horses with West Point, but never one "of this magnitude."
Sign of the Times
12:45 p.m.Signage at Churchill Downs is everywhere. It's not just a Kentucky Derby thing; it's everywhere. But that's another discussion.There are several planes flying overhead toting banners, one in particular says "Home of Kentucky Fried Chicken." KFC is one of the Yum! Brands, the new "presenter" of the Kentucky Derby.In the paddock, there is a sizable Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands sign over one side of the toteboard and two smaller "Yum" signs flanking the video board. The sign on the other side of the toteboard reads: VISA.Churchill Downs has deals with several local and national brands -- most of the stakes races they run have sponsors--but they've taken plenty of flack for taking on a corporate sponsor with the Derby. Never mind the fact it's a local company and one of the biggest in the state in net value.Most other major events have marketing agreements. Name a college football bowl game that doesn't have a "title sponsor."Other Derbys have sponsors: The Budweiser Irish Derby; the Vodafone Epsom Derby.Some in racing feel the Derby should place itself above all that. Some don't. That's why they call it horse racing.
There's a Party on the Patio
10:50 a.m.The open-air area around the paddock is filling up pretty good. Young, 2-year-old horses are being prepared for the first race.Four friends from Lexington have torn through their Forms on the drive to the Downs, and they've already made their bets. One of the many beer vendors on the grounds comes by. At six bucks a pop for a 16-ounce can, a round for them costs $24. "Third beer, and it's not even 11," one says. "The kids are alright. Giddy-up."On the beer vendor's heels is the Mint Julep man."Juleps! Juleps! Somebody somewhere is drinking alone...join them," he barks out.They pass on the Juleps. For now.The first race is a real horse race. Alotofappeal, on the outside, noses Change Up after they've battled the entire length of the stretch. Objection sign goes up.One friend is heavily invested in the outcome. After a lengthy wait, the order stands and he hits the exacta many, many times.Giddy-up.
9:30 a.m.Walking along the track to the frontside, there's a lot of jockeying going on already. It's not the horses, but a large gaggle of photographers.They're all on the track at the annual meeting to go over the track's rules of engagement and to get their spot on the track where they'll capture the magic tomorrow afternoon.Long before the horses and riders battle for position going into the first turn, the photographers mark their territory with duct tape along the outside rail and write their name on it in black magic marker.The same thing goes on along the inside of the track where the remote cameras will be placed."Everything is low-key for now," says Eclipse-Award winning photog Barbara D. Livingston, a member of The Blood-Horse's crew for the week. "But don't worry, we'll all wake up tomorrow."
TV is Tuned in at Churchill
9:15 a.m.Trainer Thomas "T.V." Smith had a Derby horse in 2003. Offlee Wild ran 12th that day. These days, Smith's still at Churchill Downs and still at Barn 23. "You look back and you think you probably would have done a few things differently," he says of his shot at the Kentucky Derby. "It was quite an experience; probably the only time I'll have the opportunity, but you never know."I've known Bob Holthus for all the years he's been training horses, and by golly, it's rolled around for him again. Maybe someday it will roll around for me. But he's got a big stable, and I've got a little stable."Smith favors Holthus' runner Lawyer Ron and "Mike Matz' horse, too. I'm rooting for them more than, I guess, the horses."Derby week is different for trainers that don't have an Oaks filly or Derby starter. The locals have a lot to deal with."It's a pain. But you realize that it comes around once a year. You just have to go along with the flow and put up with the traffic and the people. This is Churchill Downs' time to make hay. Sunday morning will be quiet, and then we'll go on with the rest of the meet."Sitting in a lawn chair in his office, Smith pulls on a pair of paddock boots. He has a horse in today's second race. First post is 11 a.m.
Tagg and Showing Up: Let's Rock
8:40 a.m.The last Derby ship in--Showing Up--arrived on the grounds yesterday afternoon. His trainer, Barclay Tagg, rolls through the recreation center. This is Tagg's second trip for the Derby. His first was with Funny Cide in 2003, and they both went home winners."Everything's good so far," he says. "This is where you want to be if you're training racehorses."He has Showing Up in the same barn Funny Cide was in. "He's a nice little horse," he says of his starter. "It may be a little premature to tell about him, but he hasn't done anything wrong, so we brought him here."Stopping to take a look at a stand selling officially licensed merchandise is assistant and exercise rider Robin Smullen. She's checking out the licensed Derby 132 throw rugs."You know I didn't do this a couple of years ago," she says of doing a little souvenir shopping. "I was always in the barn."In 2003, they were newcomers. Now, they're "seasoned Derby vets.""When we came into it before, we were extremely confident," she says, "because you don't come to the Derby unless you're confident."Now, you look at this field, and you say 'wow, what a tough bunch of horses.' But this horse has a shot and, anytime you think you have a chance to be right there, you've got to run."He's a tenacious guy," Smullen says of Roy and Gretchen Jackson's other runner (they also bred and own Barbaro. "He doesn't care about anything other than winning. Sometimes, that's what you need. When it's time to run, he wants to rock and roll."
Let's Get it Started
8:25 a.m.On the backstretch, Robbie Reed, liberally pours vodka in a plastic cup that has a little Bloody Mary mix in it. Hey, it's Oaks day at Churchill Downs.Reed has her cooler and several lawn chairs positioned right on the fence just next to the viewing stand at the gap. She's gotten here early to get just the right spot.She's been setting up her party here for the last seven years. She's the newcomer. Her friends have been doing this for 15-some odd years.Reed used to spend Oaks day on the other side of the track. Working for the Harry M. Stevens Company, she ran the Skye One service bar on Millionaire's Row. It's going to be a long day, but it looks as if she has plenty of fortifications. She likes Steppenwolfer to win the Derby tomorrow.
No Press at This PartyI've never been to the press party downtown at the Convention Center. Instead, it's more fun to attend the annual Derby party thrown by my brother-in-law Bruce McCann and his wife, Kay Chambers. It's always the Thursday night before the big event. It's a local thing: a few neighbors, a lot of friends, the family. It takes place in the backyard. Everyone brings a specialty dish or something to drink. The hosts provide the main dishes. This year it's lasagna and tandoori chicken. The spread, literally spread out over three tables, is always a culinary spectacle.Not a whole lot of inside racetrack stuff here, but some good local color.Friend Rich Tejada has come down from his home near Toronto to the Derby every year since 1983. He stays with Bruce and Kay. He comes down ticketless, and that's half the fun. It's a three-day ordeal of wheeling, dealing, and haggling to come up with the right tickets at the right prices. He's rarely disappointed.His biggest scores once he gets inside of Churchill Downs have come with Spend a Buck and Sunny's Halo (a fellow Canadian). His last winner was Silver Charm.This year, Tejada has already bet Barbaro and Sharp Humor in the future book. On Saturday he'll use those two in his triactor (he's Canadian, remember) with Point Determined and Lawyer Ron.My wife's first cousin, Benham Sims is an attorney in town and a former judge. His wife, Deborah Deweese is a district judge for Jefferson County.Their best Derby material revolves around presiding over "Sunday Monday Arraignment" duty the day after the Derby. Oddly enough, there are a lot of people that spend Derby night in the Jefferson County jail."I did it the first year I was on the bench, 1994" Deweese says. "They stick that duty to the new guys."You get a lot of drunk drivers. They're wearing nice clothes. We let them 'plea' because usually they've got a plane to catch that day. We make them flip their pockets to see how much money they have on them. We'd fine them for what they had. We didn't want them hanging around.""My favorite was a young woman who had gotten drunk and climbed on top of a police car and started to take her clothes off," Sims says. "Of course, the cops let her finish before arresting her for indecent exposure."When she was arraigned, I said, 'I don't know who arrested her, but it's no police officer I know. It must have been a rookie.' And sure enough, it was."
Barefootin'Churchill Downs has a very solid attendance day Thursday. The lower levels of the clubhouse and grandstand are pretty well filled in. There's a good party brewing in the infield, with the help of a couple of bands like Better Than Ezra.It's like the Oaks day of old. With the escalating pricing and demand for Oaks Day, it's no longer "Louisville's Day at the Races."Thursday has become the new Friday.Leaving the Downs, I walk to the press lot, leaving the main gate by the museum, and take a sharp right to walk along the brick wall on Central Avenue to the Papa John Cardinal Stadium parking lot.I catch up to three women walking to their car. Two of them are local Louisville products: Brenda Wood, who has been coming to Churchill Downs for 13 years, and Susan Eisaman, who says she attended her first Kentucky Oaks in 1980.I beat her out by two years. My first was White Star Line in '78.Two of them are carrying their high-heeled shoes in their hand, walking barefoot."Our feet hurt," Wood says, "but we looked good."
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