Covering the Derby

The major preps are over. Now the anticipation begins. Time to call the car rental office and reserve a car, hoping it drives well enough to make the 11 1/2-hour trek to Louisville somewhere between tolerable and semi-enjoyable. For that, I also will need to specify the car has satellite radio.

The big day finally arrives and I am out the door by 6 a.m., loading up the car with a miniature version of my life’s belongings, complete with summer and winter clothing, umbrellas, my one sport jacket and ties, and special pillow, but most importantly my precious black bag containing all my Kentucky Derby paperwork – months of notes and transcribed interviews and interesting and historical statistics on as many Derby horses as I could get, past performances, pedigrees, barn lists, past Derby PPs and charts, and important telephone numbers.

Beating Philadelphia rush hour traffic on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I drive past Philadelphia Park Racetrack, Valley Forge, into the series of tunnels cutting right through the Allegheny mountains, and into the hinterlands of rural Pennsylvania, then head southwest just east of Pittsburgh, through Wheeling, West Virginia and into Ohio. Thank goodness for Serius/XM radio and six hours of Steve Byk’s radio show (live and previous day’s replay) and the 1950’s and ‘60’s music stations.

Zipping across Ohio and then through Columbus and Cincinnati, I am finally in Kentucky, passing my favorite exit sign for “Big Bone Lick State Park,” then negotiating the final leg of the trip down Interstate 71 into Louisville.

I check into my hotel, for years the Candlewood Suites, already wishing it was morning and my alarm was ringing at 4:30, and I am leaping out of bed to prepare for my first exhilarating morning at Churchill Downs. The alarm actually is of little use because I am up well before that, waiting for it to ring. The anticipation of seeing the Derby horses for the first time and the sights and sounds of the backstretch and seeing familiar faces makes me feel like a kid waking up on his first morning at Disney World. It’s hard to believe this is considered a job.

I make sure I have everything – media credential, tape recorders, notepad, binoculars, camera, extra batteries, barn list – check. And, of course, I am already well informed as to who, if anyone, is scheduled to work this morning.

Good, it’s not raining. Nothing worse than having it cold and raining on your first morning and having to negotiate the sea of mud by the horse paths that sucks you right down. The darkness is inviting. The world has yet to rise and only a few cars are scooting down the Waterston Expressway. The brisk chill in the air is invigorating and I dress accordingly, eagerly awaiting my first cup of coffee from the Kentucky Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association office or the media center.

Making my way through security at Gate 5 (If you ever have any problems, just wave, avoiding eye contact, flash your credential as quickly as you can, and just keep going without looking back). It’s sort of like after Michael shot Solazzo in Louie’s Restaurant and just calmly walked out, dropped the gun, and avoided eye contact. The great Bill Nack was an expert at getting into places he wasn’t allowed by simply acting like he belonged there, avoiding eye contact and increasing his gait speed as he entered.

Meandering my way through the barn area to my usual parking spot, either alongside Barn 40 or at the trainer’s stand by the end gap, I am finally here. Off in the distance across the track are the Twin Spires lit up in amber and blue against the black sky. Before they rebuilt the grandstand on either side, the Twin Spires stood tallest of all, commanding the skyline. Now they seem dwarfed by the massive structures outside them. But they are still spellbinding, and there is nothing like that first glimpse of them to awaken the senses and make you feel as if you are on hallowed ground.

It is about 5:15 and the track is still closed. Most Derby trainers have not yet arrived, so it’s off to Wayne Lukas’ barn nearby, where the office lights are on, horses are walking the shed, and Wayne moves about from the office to the barn entrance, ready and willing to talk about his Derby horse if he has one, or everyone’s else’s Derby horse if he doesn’t, or any other matter that is on his mind at the moment.

No one is more quotable than the free-speaking Mr. Lukas, so my tape recorder is always well prepared for any Lukas gem to start off the day. One year, he spotted a horse coming off the track heading to the barn and was informed it was Afleet Alex. “That muskrat is Afleet Alex?” he asked. You gotta love him. By the time I leave his barn I know every Derby horse who isn’t looking or training well.

The track opens at 5:30 and the first wave makes its way on. Before they instituted the Derby and Oaks training hours from 8:30 to 8:45 you were always likely to see a Derby horse or two training in the dark (you still may), and before they installed lights on the track there was absolutely nothing to see except the faint images of horses going by, passing by the lights at the poles. Even the striking Derby saddle towels were difficult to make out. Before Churchill Downs laid down the law, Lukas and Todd Pletcher refused to use the Derby saddle towels identifying their horses, leaving people to guess who they were, especially with Pletcher when he would run four or five horses and most all looked alike, mainly bays with no markings.

Nothing changes year to year other than the horses and the storylines and a few unfamiliar trainers. The horses obviously are different, but many reside in stalls once occupied by previous Derby horses, and that always brings back a flood of memories as you remember old times and familiar faces from years past. Every year there are trainers running in their first Derby who you become friendly with, knowing deep down they likely will never be back. It is exciting seeing the majority of the Derby horses for the first time in the flesh and meeting new trainers who you’ve only spoken to on the phone over the winter.

In the small one-room red brick media center, located about 30 yards from the track on the backstretch, is a large activity board, and in the past there was coffee and donuts before they were moved into the connecting recreation room, whose main purpose was providing a place for you to warm up after the morning light brought a drop in temperature and an increase in wind velocity, sending a chill right through the bone. Fortunately, they also had hot chocolate in case you had your fill of coffee.

One thing about Kentucky weather in late April, you never know what to expect, and you always must bring winter and summer clothes, because it can be 40 one day and 80 the next.

All is quiet outside the media center and you find it hard to believe the mass of humanity that will be gathering there in the days leading up to the Derby and all the TV and radio stations that will be set up, beginning their live shows at the crack of dawn.

Once you have fueled up with a cup or two of coffee, it is time plan your course of action. Where to go first?

You start logically by making the rounds to see as many Derby trainers and their horses as possible, just to renew old acquaintances and introduce yourself to the newcomers. Some years the Derby horses are fairly close to each other, especially years ago when the two “Derby barns” (Barn 41 and 42) actually were Derby barns, housing many of the horses. But now with so many more Derby trainers who have their own barns, there are fewer horses in the Derby barns and the horses now are spread all over the backstretch, which means lots of walking, which equates to wasted time, especially going to Dale Romans’ barn, located way down by the track kitchen and quite a hike from all the main activity. And if Dale is not there, then you’ve gone there for nothing and must decide whether you want to schlep back there later.

There is nothing more interesting than hanging out in Dale’s office, as a steady stream of characters stop by. And Dale has never been one to suppress his thoughts and opinions.

The first few days at Churchill are meant to confuse and lead one away from objective reporting. These are the days when you become enamored with certain horses, and sometimes their trainers when they welcome you with open arms. Exhibit A horse looks magnificent as you spend quality time alone with him and you love his eye, his head, his powerful hind quarters. His trainer tells you wonderful back stories about him. That’s it, I have my Derby horse. I have my 3,500-word recap already written. Everything from here on will be window dressing…until you visit your next horse. When you’re through with him and his trainer and you bond with the assistant or exercise rider and you get to play with the horse in his stall, you quickly change allegiance. This is now your Derby horse…for the time being.

And so it goes until you have your core of underdog horses and trainers who can stop the Pletcher machine, which usually comes in multiple numbers. Bob Baffert is the other ubiquitous presence every year, but he always provides a good story and fun quotes, and he is, well, Baffert. Steve Asmussen is another who shows up most years, and if you catch him at the right time he can be extremely enlightening and articulate. But if it is the Cinderella story you are looking for that will be a breeze filling those 3,500 words, then you must go elsewhere.

As the days add up, I try to touch base with the trainers of every horse, just to get some background and interesting quotes and see their horse close up. In 2009 I would walk by Barn 42 and see this cowboy on crutches standing outside the barn. That must be the trainer of Mine That Bird. “Aah, I’ll catch him tomorrow.” I barely know who his horse is or why he’s here. Well, tomorrow never came and when Mine That Bird shocked the world on Derby Day, the first thought that hit me was, “I might as well have arrived in Kentucky 10 minutes before the race.” I had nothing. A blank canvas; starting from scratch; two wasted weeks. Reams of paper with quotes and notes that I might as well toss in the trash. Fortunately, I was able to piece together the entire Mine That Bird odyssey by talking to everyone I could after the race, especially Chip Woolley’s girlfriend, who provided details that Woolley wouldn’t dream of sharing with the media. But that was a mistake I vowed I would never make again.

During that first week and through the weekend, just before the renovation break, I often would get in my car and drive to the far end of the backstretch, down the ramp, through the tunnel, and back up the ramp into the infield. Then it’s a hard right through the tunnel under the grandstand and out near the Derby Museum, where I park, head up the stairs of the grandstand to watch the horses scheduled to work, as well as the gallopers.

In past years, before the designated training time, the Derby horses would work at different hours, many of them at 5:30 right after the track opens. Once they installed lights on the track, it obviously made viewing the early works much easier. Once in a while you will still get a few Derby horses working early, and there is a feeling of tranquility being in the quiet, darkened grandstand watching the horses train, illuminated by the lights. Many times, whether early or late, owners will accompany the trainers and you can get some great sound bites immediately after a work. Sometimes if a trainer I know doesn’t have a large group I will ask to tag along with them. That drive back after the work often is very revealing. These are nervous times for the connections, and your horse working well and getting through it unscathed is one step closer to racing’s ultimate glory.

My favorite times are in the afternoons after sending in my daily column, which I would write from the hotel, and heading back to the backstretch at 3 o’clock to watch several of the Derby horses grazing and getting to know them up close and personal and talking either to their trainer, who is so much more relaxed and open than in the morning, or their assistant trainer, exercise rider or whoever is grazing the horse. These are the quiet times that you relish so much, when the backstretch is serene, with horses grazing on the grass behind barns 41 and 42 by the Longfield Avenue fence. This is when you get the greatest quotes and back stories, and when you can see some of the Derby horses’ coats bloom a little more each day and you can tell which ones are thriving. This is when their dapples burst out, illuminated by the late afternoon sun.

By the end of the first week, I am already wiped out, mentally and physically, and there is still a week to go, as the rest of the media begins to trickle in daily all fresh and raring to go. Transcribing all my notes from my tape recorder at night is the roughest chore, as I am constantly playing catch-up and almost always fall asleep, usually waking up hours later in the middle of the night with the lights on, my last quotes looking like something between an alien language, hieroglyphics, and doodles gone insane. The last letter I wrote down before losing consciousness extends down to the bottom of the paper. But that was nothing compared to the many times I would doze off right in the middle of a phone conversation with my wife, who knew I was sleeping by the total gibberish I was spewing that had nothing whatsoever to do with our conversation.

But somehow I get a second wind and Derby Week flies by, due mainly to all the activities, the draw, and dinner with friends. The works are usually through by Monday, with an occasional work on Tuesday. On Wednesday and Thursday the crowds on the backstretch reach their peak and the area outside the media is a place you avoid at all costs, unless you don’t mind bulling your way through a sea of humanity, the vast majority of them engrossed in conversation, oblivious to the horses on the track just a few yards away. At the first gap, a gauntlet forms at around 8:15 in anticipation of the stream of Derby horses that will be filing onto the track, first circling for several minutes waiting for the track to open. Over at the second gap, the same scene plays out, as more Derby horses parade onto the track, and most years it is the Baffert horses that command most of the attention.

By now, the notes and transcribed quotes are piling up, and I have a pretty good idea which horses I am rooting for from a professional standpoint. I know where the best stories will come from, which stories will be the easiest to write, and which stories I will struggle having to write. Fortunately, I have never had one of those that have left me wordless, although sometimes I am blank coming up with the all-important opening graphs, hoping that light will go on and quickly.

Finally, we get through the post position draw, with some happy, some crushed, and most relieved, and before you know it, it is Derby morning and I scramble to get dressed, sport jacket and tie, make sure I have all the necessary tools of the trade I will need – two tape recorders just in case and extra batteries.

I am at the track by 5:30 to get a head start and begin making the rounds to make sure everyone is sound and healthy and ready for their big day, and to wish the trainers good luck. You can count on one hand the number of media who come to the backstretch on race day morning, but for many of them, they are beat reporters, especially in past years when there actually were beat reporters, and their main focus is on the result and getting their story in on deadline. The species of newspaper beat reporter we once knew is pretty much extinct, as are the newspapers. Now there is a whole new younger breed of racing scribe, writing mainly for trade publications and various websites.

The day is endless. People are literally shoulder to shoulder so you can’t walk around. So you either hang out in the press box or head to the backstretch and just chill there, as the tension mounts.

Finally, the longest day of the year begins to wind down closer to post time. Owners and trainers show up at their respective barns and get ready for “The Walk,” that so many look forward to – to gaze across the track at the packed grandstand, to be engulfed by the moment, as you walk with your horse past the crowd, with people shouting, mostly “Good luck” and other words of encouragement.

This is when trainers and owners, although pumped with excitement and overwhelmed by the sights and sounds and overall experience, just hope their horse remains cool and calm. After all it took to get here, you don’t want to lose the race on the walkover. I remember one year, all eyes were on the temperamental and unpredictable Fusaichi Pegasus, who handled it all like a pro. I remember Pulpit getting really worked up, One year, Funny Cide uncharacteristically completely lost it, and assistant trainer Robin Smullen had to take him to the inside rail to walk him, while pleading to him, “Please, Funny, don’t do this to me.”

One of my biggest thrills was walking over with I'll Have Another's owner Paul Reddam, along with my colleague Lenny Shulman, which Reddam said helped relax him and brought on a wave of confidence, as we kidded each other. He would always say that walking over with us one of the most special moments of his Derby experience.

As the horses turn at the entrance to the tunnel leading to the paddock, Lenny Shulman and I stake out a place on the track between the sixteenth pole and the finish. In the early years at the DRF I would watch from the porch outside the Racing Form office, where you could literally feel the grandstand shake during the race. Then after going to the Blood Horse and concentrating more on color, I would watch on a TV in the small office just off the tunnel, allowing for quick access to the track as soon as the race was over.

How will I feel after the race? After two weeks in Louisville and so many mornings and afternoons getting to know the horses and trainers and assistants and exercise riders and grooms, will the result make me happy, not only in regard to the 3,500 word-story that is due the following afternoon, but personally, as a fan who has become attached to the horses and friends with the trainers and assistants? There is a sadness knowing so many trainers and owners and their barn help that I have gotten to know well are going to feel crushed and dejected in a few minutes.

As we stand on the track and the horses begin to appear from the tunnel, the strains of “My Old Kentucky Home” fill the air, as people in the grandstand sing along. It’s as if the music is emanating right from the Twin Spires directly behind you, No matter how many times you hear it you can’t help but feel a wave of emotion that brings tears to some and chills to others. One jockey said it raised the hairs on the back of his neck.

The horses approach the gate. They’re off! The cavalry charge roars past you. You have no idea who is where, except what you can make out on the large infield screen. You see flashes of familiar silks storming down the stretch. They flash by you again, this time with one horse often in isolated splendor and on his way to victory. It is over, just like that. So many thoughts race through your mind. Are you happy with the result? Do you have a story? Oh, yes, did you make money? A few seconds later, the story already starts forming in your head. You search for the winning connections or whoever else you can see associated with the winner. You rush to them to try to capture their immediate feelings; the exultation and excitement of the moment. Their emotions are pouring out uncontrollably and you try your best to record it for posterity. There is no need to say anything but congratulations. The script is all theirs.

The rest of the day and night is a blur as it all sinks in; so many thoughts running through your mind. Then come the interviews, trying to catch the winning connections alone for a second. After a brief stop at the noisy jam-packed post-race party at the Derby museum, I walk on the racetrack back to the barn in quiet, reflective solitude to talk to whoever is there and wait for the trainer and possibly the owner to return from the party. Often, you’re there until 9:30 or 10; sometimes you get good stuff, other times very little. Dinner is an afterthought on Derby night. No time to get anything, so I always try to have something in the fridge.

Back at the hotel and alone, the exhilaration starts wearing off and now there is only one thing on your mind – your story, transcribing the post-race quotes, sorting through your daily quotes from the past two weeks and months of early notes and quotes compiled since January, hopefully having background on the winner when he was a foal or yearling or early 2-year-old, coming up with an opening if you don’t already have one, and most important, assimilating everything to form one cohesive article that tells the entire story in an entertaining and informative manner.

Sunday morning and through the afternoon is non-stop writing. You’re on a roll; can’t stop. Finally, the story is finished and you send it in, as a sense of accomplishment and relief hits you. Then, for years, it was off to dinner at John E’s with my good friend and colleague Ed Fountaine of the New York Post. This is the time for relaxing and going over the race. The work is over.

By 4:15 a.m. Monday the car is packed up and I am on the road, beating Cincinnati rush hour, then making my two Subway stops, one for breakfast off the Mount Sterling exit in Ohio and the other in Cambridge Ohio for the all-important foot-long veggie sub that hopefully will keep me awake during the interminable 5 1/2 to six-hour stretch across Pennsylvania.

I am home by 4:30, having survived another Kentucky Derby. One week and then it’s off to Baltimore, and we start all over again.

Those days are over. It is unlikely I will ever gaze upon the Twin Spires again. No more chilly mornings on the backstretch. No more running after trainers for quotes. No more quiet, lazy afternoons watching the Derby horses grazing and talking to assistants and exercise riders about their horse’s personality. And most of all, no more frenetic, exhausting Derby Days. It’s back to watching on TV as I did so many decades ago, and then going out to dinner with my wife.

I am very content, not having to endure the strain it puts on you. But in many ways I miss it, every stimulating minute of it. After all, it is the Kentucky Derby.

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