Cloudy skies and a extended unseasonal slight chill in the air welcomed the start of Kentucky Derby Week Monday morning at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Yes, technically Derby Week started Sunday but since there were no This Is Horse Racing boots on the ground until Monday we’ll go with that for the start.

Derby Week in the Derby City always brings a lot of excitement, changes, and crowds who turn out at the Downs to catch a quick glimpse of the contenders. One of the first changes noticed in 20 years covering the great race – a stretch going back to 1998 and only missing two since then – came on a quick stop for coffee and gas off I-64 at the Blankenbaker Parkway exit. Always a quick on and off, the exit backed up a bit more than usual Monday morning even just before 6:30.

Aside from a little traffic from there to the Watterson Expressway and ultimately the parking lot outside the stable gate at Churchill, the trek from Lexington to Louisville the last Monday in April was smooth. A tradition like none other to be sure.

So, what’s it like on what many of the locals call “the backside” Derby Week?

Stand in a spot – between the marquee tent and the gaps in the middle of the backstretch for the 15-minute designated training period for Derby and Kentucky Oaks runners – and you’ll find a mixture of lookie-loos and fans, horsemen and horseplayers, grizzled vets and easy-to-spot rookies.

Here’s a snippet of the action, from start to a little after the finish:

The call comes out over the PA alerting horsemen with “Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks horses only to track” at 7:25. Stragglers from the barn area start to join those lined along the outside fence to sneak a peek, while catching up with friends and colleagues.

“They’re down there at the Lukas gap.”

“Hey Jerry, did you see who just went by?”

Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster is the first to hit the track, going alone while stablemate and Kentucky Oaks contender Flor de la Mar goes alongside the pony and Bob Baffert’s longtime assistant Jimmy Barnes.

“Happy Derby.”

Bill Mott’s two Derby contenders follow shortly after Baffert’s duo, assistant Kenny McCarthy on the pony with Country House and Mott on the pony with Tacitus.

“That’s Close Hatches' baby, look at him.”

“More importantly it’s a Tapit colt.”

Just after 7:36 Roadster rolls past under Humberto “Beto” Gomez in front of onlookers decked out in everything from suits and dresses; winter jackets, hats and gloves and hoodies, blue jeans and leggings.

Kentucky Oaks threats Motion Emotion, runner-up in the Fantasy and Honeybee at Oaklawn, and Restless Rider, with Brian Hernandez Jr. taking a tight hold before breezing a half in :49.60, pass the crowd.

Omaha Beach and Taylor Cambra, who loped past the crowd just after the track opened like they were out for a walk in the woods, gallop past a few minutes later amidst camera clicks worthy of the expected Derby favorite.

Roadster, first on and first off at 7:38, just ahead of Country House. Long Range Toddy, carrying his head high and looking tall, zips past just ahead of a visually more energetic War Of Will as Mott and Tacticus make the short walk back to Barn 19.

“I like those War Front babies.”

A breeze kicks up, blowing cold air and a whiff of whatever breakfast treats served to the well-heeled – or the glommers-on – watching roughly three stories up from the top of the Keeneland and Lane's End Bluegrass Breakfast marquee.

At 7:41 Jaywalk shows herself for the first time at Churchill since winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies last November. Taylor Servis, assistant to his father John Servis, takes last year’s champion 2-year-old filly through her paces, just a light jog on her first morning in Louisville after shipping over from Keeneland Sunday afternoon.

A few paces off the chain-link fence, four bros in baseball caps discuss Sunday night’s NBA playoff game just after Signalman, with Ken McPeek’s longtime exercise rider Danny Ramsey, gallops past a few paths off the fence.

“If you’re going to eject the guy with two seconds left and suspend him for the next game you might as well just hand them the series,” one said to the other, referring to Chris Paul getting tossed late in the Houston Rockets’ loss to the defending champion Golden State Warriors.

“Happy Derby.”

“Oh hey, I didn’t think I’d see you all out here.”

“I didn’t recognize you with the hat on.”

One minute after the designated close of Derby and Oaks training – at 7:46 – Steve Asmussen leads Long Range Toddy off the track aboard his pony while the other members of the resident equine population file onto the track for jogs and gallops.

Back in the barn area Mike Trombetta holds Win Win Win while a groom hoses the Hat Trick colt’s hind legs and Mark Casse jogs a set on the pavement outside his barn before going to the track. At 7:53 Shug McGaughey chats in the shedrow with Bill and Will Farish, all while Code Of Honor pokes his head from his stall on a day of rest following his half-mile breeze in :46.80 Sunday morning.

"Happy Derby."

And there you go, a 28-minute snippet of activity from Day 1 of Derby Week, or Day 2 if you’re so inclined.

 

Field set for Kentucky Oaks
An overflow field of 16 was entered Monday morning for Friday’s $1.25 million Longines Kentucky Oaks, with California star Bellafina pegged as the 2-1 favorite for the 145th edition of the race.

Bellafina, winner of the Santa Anita Oaks and her other two starts this season, drew post 4 for owner Kaleem Shah and trainer Simon Callaghan.

The 5-1 second choice on the morning line, Dunbar Road, found herself on the also-eligible list along with Point Of Honor. Trained by Chad Brown and runner-up in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks in her second start, Dunbar Road will need a scratch from the body of the race to make the field.

Should no scratches come, Grade 1 winner and Ashland runner-up Restless Rider and champion and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Jaywalk, figure to vie for second choice in the betting as the 6-1 and 8-1 third and fourth choices on the early line.

Here’s the full field for the Kentucky Oaks, with riders and morning-line odds:

  1. Out For A Spin (Irad Ortiz Jr.), 15-1;
  2. Chocolate Kisses (Julien Leparoux), 20-1;
  3. Lady Apple (Ricardo Santana Jr.), 20-1;
  4. Bellafina (Flavien Prat), 2-1;
  5. Flor de la Mar (Joel Rosario), 20-1;
  6. Positive Spirit (Manny Franco), 30-1;
  7. Jaywalk (Javier Castellano), 8-1;
  8. Motion Emotion (Mike Smith), 15-1;
  9. Liora (Channing Hill), 20-1;
  10. Champagne Anyone (Chris Landeros), 6-1;
  11. Jeltrin (Luis Saez), 15-1;
  12. Street Band (Sophie Doyle), 15-1;
  13. Serengeti Empress (Jose Ortiz), 8-1;
  14. Restless Rider (Brian Hernandez Jr.), 6-1;
  15. AE- Dunbar Road (Jose Ortiz), 5-1;
  16. AE- Point Of Honor (John Velazquez), 30-1.

 

Steeplechase Report
Senior Senator dominated the news cycle from the steeplechase world over the weekend, winning the Maryland Hunt Cup for the third time Saturday in Glyndon. Check out Joe’s recap of the race and don’t miss the video included for even more fun.

Two other jump meets went down Saturday – the Queen’s Cup Steeplechase in North Carolina and the Foxfield Spring Races in Virginia – and Jack Fisher continued his hot start to the 2019 spring season.

Fisher won three races at the Queen’s Cup, including the featured $100,000 MPC Stakes with Riverdee Stable’s Gibralfaro. Michael Mitchell rode Gibralfaro to a 1 3/4-length victory over My Afleet in the 2 3/8-mile headliner with Storm Team third and City Dreamer fourth to give Fisher a 1-3-4 finish.

Fisher also won the opener, a 2 1/4-mile maiden hurdle worth $30,000, with Duodecim Stable’s All For Us under Willie McCarthy and the $30,000 Easyfix Steeplethon timber with Gil Johnston’s Hanno under Quinn Scala. Fisher is 11-for-33 on the season. Yowza.

Other winners on the Queen’s Cup card were Smallwood Stable’s Corky Lemon in the $40,000 maiden hurdle for trainer Nancy Ruch and jockey Sean McDermott and Bill Pape’s No Mans Land in the 1 1/4-mile training flat for trainer Richard Valentine and jockey Thomas Garner.

Jockey Barry Foley doubled up at Foxfield, winning the $20,000 Virginia Equine Alliance filly and mare maiden hurdle aboard Market Alley for owner Peggy Steinman and trainer Doug Fout and the $15,000 Grover Vandervender Memorial maiden timber on Jump To Juneau for owner Kinross Farm and trainer Neil Morris.

Mason Hardaway Lampton’s Maccabee won the featured $25,000 Daniel Van Clief Memorial ratings handicap hurdle by 5 3/4 lengths from Mavourneen. Richard Boucher rode the 6-year-old Street Hero gelding for trainer Lilith Boucher.

Other winners at Foxfield were Taking The Lead Racing’s Lead Investor for jockey Aaron Sinnott and trainer Jonathan Sheppard in the $15,000 Vineyard Vines maiden-claiming hurdle and Pathfinder Racing’s Glad Moon in the Little John’s training flat for jockey Graham Watters and trainer Neil Morris.

The TIHR handicappers earned the free square by picking Senior Senator to win the Maryland Hunt Cup, were blanked at Foxfield and produced so-so results at the Queen’s Cup.

Tom picked three winners at the Queen’s Cup – Gibralfaro, Hanno (via a scratch) and No Mans Land to wrest the season lead and increase his total to 12. Joe is next with 11 after two wins at the Queen’s Cup – Hanno and No Mans Land. Sean is two back off the lead after also picking two at the Queen’s Cup – Gibralfaro and No Mans Land.

Two meets are on tap for Derby Weekend – the Virginia Gold Cup Saturday at The Plains and the Winterthur Races Sunday in Winterthur, Delaware, before the Iroquois Steeplechase May 11 in Nashville.