Churchill Downs, Derby week. Even before the crowds fill every spare inch of the grandstand, the infield, and the paddock Derby magic is already there. Perhaps it is just from the excitement of the race being so near at hand. I had not yet experienced Churchill in Derby week until the actual day itself, and it was a bit of a revelation to feel this magic already.
But how could you not feel it? The stage is perfectly set, from the time you approach and see Barbaro forever captured at the moment he found his own Derby glory. My visit took place one day after what would have been his 10th birthday. Though he didn’t live to reach that milestone, there is still a strong sense of his legacy at this track, not diminished by the passage of time. It was evident in the peppermints and bouquet of roses left at the base of the statue.
This is the kind of history that draws you in at Churchill, and continues as you see Pat Day in bronze reaching for the skies and Aristides galloping nearby. Most of all, it rises in the form of the Twin Spires.
The sun was riding low over the track, illuminating the horses and even the dirt surface in a way that made them golden. It was more Derby magic at work, and the horses seemed to materialize out of its glow and slowly become more real and substantial as they approached. Their breath flowed in long plumes that extended before them. It was simply beautiful to witness, carrying traces of the possibility seen in the greats who thundered across the track before.
Even as enjoyable as it was to see these horses soar across this track and share a morning elbow-to-elbow with other racing enthusiasts, this was merely the prelude to the main act. Like the opening act at a concert. That proved to be an apt description, as the appearance of the Derby horses was met with applause and an even deeper ripple of excitement. It felt exactly like seeing rock stars, as the names previously only read in the papers and online became the real flesh-and-blood animals.
Todd Pletcher sent out each of his five entrants in a set, and the first to reach us was the imposing Revolutionary. His rider whistled quietly to try to calm the horse and contain his energy, but he broke into a smile at seeing all the eager faces waiting for the first horse’s appearance. His smile signified the fan-friendly atmosphere of the morning, where even exercise riders had earlier tried to coax their mounts to allow children to reach up a tentative hand and pat their noses. Of course, being Thoroughbreds out on the track, they weren’t always as willing to stand still for a pat as their riders and the kids may have wanted them to.
It was such a distinct difference, a pleasant interlude, from all the tumult–wonderful, exciting, yet all the same a little crazy-that took over by week’s end.
As the horses continued to file by, Overanalyze seemed determined to put on a show. He was on his toes from the moment he came near the spectators to the time he galloped by a short while later. He almost could have been said to be playing up to the crowd, but no doubt he was just a live wire of energy more than anything.
Vyjack went past, and it was only later I realized he didn’t use a bit in his morning training. I believe he’s the first Thoroughbred I’ve seen to train in a hackamore. Used to keep him calmer, it certainly seemed to work that morning. He didn’t go past nearly as fired up as Revolutionary and Overanalyze appeared to be.
The procession of top horses continued, the names on their saddlecloths seeming like a who’s who of the three-year-olds: Itsmyluckyday, Rose to Gold, Black Onyx.
Black Onyx was every bit as stunning as reported. His near-black coat and large white blaze seemed to elicit widespread admiration among everyone nearby. He seemed to win fans just by walking past, many of them probably seeing him for the first time as I was. I admit to being a bit smitten. It may not be enough to put him among my Derby picks, which were easier to select after seeing the roster personally that morning, but it would have been enough to make me watch for his dazzling good looks once more Saturday when it’s all for real and the dress rehearsal is over. He won’t get the chance, sadly, after being scratched with an ankle injury the day before the race.
Pure Fun and Power Broker galloped by next, looking like they were well within themselves, the very presence of calmly contained power.
Champion Beholder, a Kentucky Oaks contender, passed by in her signature black earmuffs, due to her sensitivity to noise. Frac Daddy was captured with a powerfully reaching stride nearing the finish line all alone.
Not a bad place to be at all two days from now, if he can sustain that power. Of course he will have to contend with the likes of Goldencents, Java’s War, and Verrazano-three powerful individuals who stood out the most in the morning gallops-as well as morning-line favorite Orb, who did not make an appearance that day.
With two days to go, all is fine-tuning now. It is almost time to see who sustains the power and promise exhibited in the mornings, to be the one still alone at the wire after My Old Kentucky Home is played and the crowd is cheering itself hoarse. It’s a moment not to be missed.
Sarah E. Troxell is a student at the University of Kentucky and plans to write for The Saratoga Special this summer.