Two weeks ago, I went to the Kentucky Derby with Candice.
It was my first trip to the Derby (though not my first to Churchill Downs), and my first to any Triple Crown race. It was a bit different than I expected, mainly because I am so used to being a railbird, and yet general admission tickets did not cover access to the apron. We could get to the paddock or the infield. From the paddock, we could see the horses before the races, but would have to watch the races on the screen. From the infield, we would be in the midst of a huge party…but only be able to see the horses when they ran by our section of rail, assuming we were lucky enough to get a rail spot.
We spent the day in the paddock.
The day opened with an allowance race in which I could see a familiar face from last year’s Illinois Derby: Irish You Well. Though I had dyed my hair green to match Keen Ice’s silks, they matched Irish You Well as well, since Donegal Racing also campaigns him.
After the scratch of Coalport from the Woodford Reserve (GI), the only Illinois-bred on the card was Lewys Vaporizer. He had scratched from the Illinois Derby (GIII) at Hawthorne three weeks before. The Lewis Michael gelding returned in the 2nd race on Derby day, an N1X for the sophomore set. He set the early fractions, as Rivelli horses so often do. Though he was caught by both Island Town and Roll Tide Roll, he managed to keep his neck in front of Yockey’s Warrior and hold the show.
Through the afternoon, we bounced around between the paddock and the benches out behind. With a full card and the hot sun, getting a bit of rest along the way was paramount, especially to ensure that we would be alert and engaged once the Derby finally came around. At moments the world felt small, particularly when Trixie and Casey from Lady and the Track came by. At others, it was weird, as when this fellow (who may have fit in a bit better in the infield) walked past.
Taking pictures in the paddock posed a challenge because of the crowds, but even those throngs could not stop me from laying eyes on the horses.
In the hour and a half leading up to the Derby, we found a nice, shady spot by the tunnel. Initially there were throngs of people in front of us, but as they wandered, we got closer. By the time the Derby horses were coming in, we were right along the fence. All of my attempts to take still shots of the horses walking in failed miserably.
However, after they had all walked in, a security guard walked up to the fence. They let everyone along it know that they would be saddling Dortmund near us. We were told not to make any loud or sudden noises, and that we could not take photos with flash. However, no-flash pictures remained within the rules.
Thank goodness, because seeing Dortmund saddled so close to me was the highlight of my Kentucky Derby. In the early stages of the Derby trail, I had every reason not to like Dortmund. I am not much for Bob Baffert, and I tend to be skeptical of Everyone’s Buzz Horse. However, I fall all over myself for the big tanks, and his win in the Robert B. Lewis after looking put away showed his gameness. I had become a Dortmund fan in spite of myself, and I could not wait to be that close to him for more than a fleeting moment.
It was downright adorable. Dortmund was this monster…a huge horse, coming into the race undefeated, having taken the three-year-old circuit out west by storm. Getting saddled in the tunnel, though, he reminded me far more of a nervous little kid before the school play.
Since none of my stills of the horses walking in turned out, I decided to take a different tactic as the horses walked out. Being right on the fence, I stuck my phone between a couple of the bars and took video of all of them walking past. Since I knew I could not go trackside, it was the closest I would be to the Derby horses all day.
Of course, I could not help but get a little excited when a particular horse came by.
The Derby itself was fun, although nerve-racking because I was watching it from the screen in the paddock instead of in live action. With the crowd and the noise and the distance from the screen, it was hard to follow the action at points. On one hand, it was a great experience to be in a crowd that was all watching the race. On the other, I kept feeling weird about the fact that I could not see the oval even though I was on the premises. Railbird tendencies never die.
After the races, the paddock got calmer. The Derby did not end the day; a three-year-old N1X followed it, and then a maiden special weight to conclude.