Guest Blog: Thoughts on the KY Derby From a Fan Perspective

I received the following piece from Erin Grogan of Keene, N.H. on the Tuesday following this year's Kentucky Derby and I felt like I needed to share it with you.

Professionally, Grogan works as a senior research associate for The New Teacher Project, a national non-profit organization that focuses on teacher retention and teacher effectiveness. Recreationally, however, she is a die-hard horse racing fan who skipped her PhD graduation ceremony to attend the Derby.

Grogan, who was the winner of this year's WinStar Farm Fantasy Derby Contest, provides an interesting perspective of her experiences during what she called "a trip of a lifetime." I hope you enjoy her words. Feel free to leave comments about your own thoughts/experiences surrounding this year's Triple Crown.


By Erin Grogan

The day after the Kentucky Derby, winning trainer Graham Motion described his experience as “surreal.” I had much the same feeling on May 8.

A couple of months earlier, I had signed up to play Winstar Farm’s “Fantasy Kentucky Derby” game. I had also participated in the contest in 2010, but my “fantasy stable” finished something like 1,500 out of 2,000. But, since I read voraciously about horseracing anyway, I figured there was a small chance that I could translate that knowledge into a better showing this year.

Fast forward to the last week of the contest, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself sitting in about 30th place. Several horses in my stable were running in their final preps that weekend, and I thought there was a real chance I could break the top 10, which meant I would win some sort of memorabilia from one of Winstar’s horses. I was thrilled at that idea, and figured it would be the right sort of prize to donate to Miracles in Motion, the therapeutic horseback riding program where I volunteer, for a future silent auction fundraiser.

On April 16, when “my” horses Archarcharch and Twinspired hit the board in their respective preps, my stable was catapulted into the lead. The morning of April 17, I walked down the stairs in a daze, and announced to my husband that I had won the contest, which meant a free trip to Kentucky for my husband and I, including a tour of Winstar and box seats to both Oaks and Derby Day. In essence, this was the trip of a lifetime for me.

Much like Graham Motion, I experienced a surreal Derby weekend. Mine was comprised of meeting Tiznow, Distorted Humor, Harlan’s Holiday, and the other stallions of WinStar; donning hats for two days of world class racing; hanging out with some lovely folks from WinStar in box seats right above the finish line; and driving around Bluegrass country while rattling off decades of horseracing trivia to my very patient husband.

Erin meeting Tiznow at WinStar

While I can’t include a big score at the betting window in my list of memorable moments, I will note the irony that the only two tickets we cashed seemed blessed by WinStar--we did well with their Doubles Partner in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (gr. IT), and rounded out Derby day with a nice payout on The Program, a son of my new friend Harlan’s Holiday.

Now that I’ve left this weekend’s dream world, I’ve had some time to reflect on this whole amazing experience, and have three big takeaways:

Maybe there is something to focusing on bringing women to the track.

I’m sure my friends and family would agree I’m not the sort of person who would be labeled “girly.” I prefer paddock boots to high heels, good craft beer to wine, horse racing to Dancing with the Stars. In the past when I’ve heard about some of the “Pink Pint nights” or women-only betting seminars, I’ve tended to roll my eyes and feel resentful at the thought that women need some sort of special treatment to understand the sport of kings.

But the most unexpected thing that happened to me this weekend was that almost everyone I met assumed that my husband had won the contest, not me. I found that absolutely fascinating, and it honestly changed my mind regarding the utility of those events to bring new fans to the sport. It occurred to me that for the last few years, when I’ve really gotten back into racing and riding myself, I’ve finally embraced the inner “horse crazy little girl” that never outgrew it--I may have suppressed my horsiness in college because it wasn’t cool, and in my twenties because I couldn’t afford it, but heading into my third decade, I’m indulging it unapologetically. I think there are plenty of other women like me; they just need to be invited in.

Erin and her husband handicapping the Kentucky Oaks

It’s all about the horses.

Yes, that last comment does mean that racing, to me, is about more than just betting. Some people I encounter on the racing blogs don’t agree, and I suppose that’s fine. But whether you want to take pictures in the paddock or keep dreaming of the day you hit the Super High 5, I think all sides can agree that the sport is what it is because of the horses.

There’s no need for me to add my layperson’s opinions on drugs, breeding-induced soundness issues, or training techniques here, but I’ll simply say that the most fun I had (Derby) weekend was going toe-to-toe on “racehorse trivia” with people who spend a lot more time on racetracks than I do.

I became a racing fan at the tender age of 4, and kept binders full of clippings about my favorites running in the New York Racing Association claiming ranks up through Breeder’s Cup champions. It’s amazing I was able to make room for my graduate school education given all the random horse racing facts crammed in my head. But whether I was rattling off Tiznow’s race record, Distorted Humor’s progeny, or the Kentucky Derby field when Barbaro won in 2006, I couldn’t help but smile because I was totally in my element, surrounded by thousands of other people who all had the same nerdy encyclopedic knowledge of these horses.

What’s in it for WinStar? What can the fans truly do to help the sport?

It should be clear that I certainly had the weekend of a lifetime courtesy of WinStar’s generosity. But in the back of my mind all weekend, I was really trying to unravel just what WinStar gained by making this trip possible. Our private tour guide told us the farm understands that the fans make the sport, and wanted to get them involved. I think that’s a lovely idea, but fans like me can’t really do much to prop up horse racing.

The $200 we lost at the betting windows this weekend certainly didn’t do anything to raise purses. Even though my husband and I aspire to be part of a racing partnership some day, we have to face the reality that he’s a professor and I’m a researcher; we’re never going to breed a mare to Distorted Humor or buy a sale topper at Keeneland.

We go to Saratoga once a year because it’s a tradition where I grew up, but we don’t visit Suffolk Downs, which is closer to where we live now. So, I’m really struggling with how truly ordinary fans can change the trajectory of the sport. I’ve sent pictures from this weekend to everyone I know and implored them to sign up for Winstar’s contest next year, and we’ll encourage friends to visit Saratoga this summer.

But the bigger picture question really sticks with me. The blogs and the reader’s comments on sites like The Blood-Horse are filled with people prognosticating on “what the industry needs.” I’d love to hear more from the industry about how normal, horse loving fans and bettors can spread the word and generate the kind of excitement it seems we need to ensure that the Triple Crown quality horses, the optional claimers at Suffolk, and everything in between are supported in a way that keeps people coming back for more. If WinStar feels some incentive to give back to the fans, what can the fans give to the sport in return?

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