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.

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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?


8 Comments

Leave a Comment:

IOWay

There is a conflict between hoping the horse you bet on wins and just enjoying watching a race.  We need both bettors and just those racing fans who love watching the competition, the majesty and the traditions of racing in order to keep the industry going, especially in the states that have the racino subsidies. Glad you and your husband had fun.  Great point about catering more to the ladies.  The Susan Koenan tie in with the Oaks has been a great thing for the filly races.

17 May 2011 10:43 PM
whippetgurl

I attended my first Kentucky Derby in 2010 and was so happy to be there, as I too have been a race fan since a very young age.  For me, it is all about the thoroughbred.  I would be a racing fan even if there was not betting.  I cried during the singing of My Old Kentucky Home but was somewhat taken aback by the amount of alcohol consumed and the people who seemed to have no heart when it came to the horses.  I was heartbroken when Rachel Alexandra lost her race that day but nobody else around me seemed to care.  I didn't bet any money on her either, I just was sad for her.  Anyway, it is something that was on my bucket list and I'm glad I did it but probably won't ever go back.  It's very expensive and you actually see and hear much more watching it on TV.  

18 May 2011 8:17 AM
SophieK

Great story!! I can relate to Erin in so many ways. I too feel we need to find a way to get people back to the races and understand the passion and excitement that goes with this beautiful sport. I think marketing and education are needed most. The powers that be have let this sport decline in the public's minds. All sports have gone through a modernization period in their histories but the old cronies who run racing are scared to change anything because of "tradition". Well, it was a tradition to not wear helmets and face masks in many sports but we realized its safer with them!! The facilities need to be modernized and welcoming as well. The Yankees even built a new stadium!!!

I love this sport so much and I hope one day to see my friends understand and catch the fever as well.

Maybe more women need to get a hold of the reins to make good changes and regain the popularity it once had.

18 May 2011 9:08 AM
merrywriter

This does not exactly answer YOUR question, Erin, but the only way the trajectory is going to change is if the industry itself helps the newbie understand racing terms.  This is such a specialized sport with its own language that a person gives up trying figure out what is being talking about.  I have asked Bloodhorse for years to just put a glossary of terms as a link on the left of their pages and surely that is no big expense.  Making me create an account to post this had to cost more to set up.

You mentioned your $200 bets.  At one time when my dad was into racing, as a culture Wednesday afternoons were taken off.  He'd go to see Seabiscuit race, and so did half of the Bay Area. Those bets of small timers added up.  We ain't goin' back to that time, but night time racing, plus insistence that ESPN give better coverage (they sure missed their chance with Zenyatta) would bring in more fans.

The fans can do little for racing when the industry keeps shooting itself in the hoof. Overbreeding and the horrendous terror horses face at slaughter is enough to turn off those who don't have the  inner “horse crazy little girl," whom I assume are as just as mortified.  Then there are the track accidents. Who wants to go watch a horse die?  It's a crap shoot as to if that will happen when watching.  At one time people came from farms and were closer to life and death situations, not now, there is a total disconnect about where our meat even comes from.

In conclusion, I'm afraid that fans can only spread the word if the industry cleans up its act and is more welcoming to the small time fan as it once was.  Build a wide base (and that includes women of course) and the money will come.

18 May 2011 9:23 AM
kincsem

Amen, to that merrywriter! A national regulating authority is what racing needs to clean up its act. So that racing officials are not in a position to chose which trainers are going to "get away with" medical violations, and which ones aren't, as exemplified in the recent whistle-blower incident in California. It is a rotten business, through and through, and needs a good house cleaning. When are they people running the sport going to realize that the general public isn't so stupid that they cannot see through the subterfuge? The Life At Ten incident gets blamed on the jockey? Please! There is something rotten in Denmark!

18 May 2011 2:28 PM
Stellar Jayne

Hi Erin,

Lovely article.  As you stated the important question is to hear, or read how the industry can motivate and involve the fans - whether or not they are bettors.  I think Ann and Jerry Moss; John and Dottie Sherriffs and their team; and WinStar  have provided a map that others can follow.  If only more in the industry had the will and put aside their fears, whatever those might be, aside!

18 May 2011 5:18 PM
PomDeTerre

just cuz u won a trip to the derby doesnt suddenky make u an expert on the industry

18 May 2011 10:58 PM
Useeit

@PomDeTerre Do I detect some sour grapes?  Were you in the contest?  I didn't see anything in this piece to indicate that Erin was claiming to be an "expert" on anything.  

19 May 2011 2:53 PM

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