I adore Derby season. That’s no secret. From the Great Balloon Glow to Wine Fest at the Belvedere, I go all out & have a ball for the two-week Kentucky Derby Festival each year. And it wouldn’t be Derby for me without at least one day at Churchill Downs.
I go to the track at other times throughout the year for the Fall & Spring meet, Downs After Dark, & special occasions, as all good Louisvillians should, but there’s something extra special about Churchill during Derby.
As lovely as the front side of the track is with its copper julep cups, fine hats, & seersucker suits, the true majesty of this equestrian hub is found on the backside. And at dawn on Derby morning, it was nothing short of magical.
Affectionately known as “Pony Barb” our early morning escort had a long history with horses & spent many years raising, training & racing them at elite tracks across the country. Churchill was always home & her insider access was our priceless passport, allowing us the early morning view of the barns & track that only owners, trainers & staff have.
We parked near the gate and strolled between the stables, watching everything spring to life. There were horses having breakfast and getting bathed, and jockeys saddling their steeds, dreaming of victories. There was a hopeful energy in the air, swirled with superstition, as is to be expected on the race day of days.
After a bit, we made our way to the “Owners & Trainers” viewing post near the gate to the track and ascended the stairs. Atop the wooden deck & covered box we had a perfect view of the full field, freshly raked & untouched by the coming chaos of the day. Owners carrying coffee stumbled up half asleep but determined to see the first warm-up. Stopwatches in hand they timed each lap, relaying information to their teams on the ground. The crowds would come for a show, but for this crew, the horses were both pleasure and serious business.
The horses panted wildly as they found their stride and their hooves pounded the dirt with passion. They were born to do this and this was their moment, maybe the biggest of their careers. Riders laughed and joked between laps, as comfortable atop their colts as you or me in the driver’s seat of a car. It was clear that this was their preferred method of travel, even if they never went far.
It was an entirely different world, one that I now prefer to the glitz and glam of the stands.
On our way out, we stopped at the pony barns to meet Harley, a giant black beauty whose job it was to escort the racehorses back & forth between the track & the backside that day. His owner, Monty, was a spirited woman, wonderfully weathered by a life in the barns. Her smile radiated pride as she talked about her horse & shared pictures of his recent moments in the spotlight.
As the group continued to talk I wondered from horse to horse, petting their manes, nuzzling the side of their faces, getting as close as they’d let me before curious teeth came poking by my pockets hoping for peppermints.
I must say there is something settling about the spirit of a horse. Sheer power and strength, willing to accept a rider, even to yield to their lead, though they are so obviously in control. They may not speak, but their eyes are loud with life & making eye contact with Harley was like letting him into my soul.
I’ve always loved horses, even though I’ve never owned one, and spending time with them is incredibly therapeutic. I’ve seen horses temper the rage of traumatized children and cultivate confidence in the abused. They have a way of quieting pain and giving permission to release it. They also inspire great joy.
You’re probably thinking that I’m exaggerating but believe me when I say that these early morning moments were the best of my entire Derby experience. (Yes, even better than meeting Dennis Quaid.) I now know that Millionaire’s Row is not where they keep the real Derby magic. It is tucked behind the big screen lining 4th Street…
And I hope to be there every year before the sunrise between the Twin Spires to see Derby come alive.