Chasing the Triple Crown – The Kentucky Derby, Part I

Heather and Matt at the paddock area at the Kentucky Derby.

{Heather’s View}

In 2012 Matt and I caught a snippet on TV about a horse, I’ll Have Another, winning the Santa Anita Derby. The news started to explode about this previously unknown now being the IT horse to win the Kentucky Derby and possibly the elusive Triple Crown.

– {We should chase the Triple Crown this year.}
– [Ok.]

That was all it took.

Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby.

Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby.

I grew up showing horses and loved almost everything horse related.  As a kid, I was not a fan of horse racing. I didn’t like how the animals were washed up so early in life, nor how they were treated if they were injured or slow racers.  Horse racing was a very cutthroat business. So when I said I wanted to chase the Triple Crown, I shocked myself. The year before I had the privilege of visiting Churchill Downs and touring the museum and the grounds. It is a great place and quickly draws you in with all its history and charm. The energy and atmosphere at Churchill Downs are undeniable.

Times have changed since I was a kid. Horse racing is not an entirely ethical sport (is there such a sport?), but there have been a lot of efforts taken to improve the quality of life for the horses. I am not an expert, but I still seem to have that internal conflict regarding how I view horse racing. I absolutely understand how people love it and live it especially in Kentucky.

I love Kentucky. In particular, the miles upon miles of beautiful horse farms and estates. Most Kentuckians grow up knowing about horses.  Everything is horse related. Especially in the areas from Louisville to Lexington.  Louisville during derby week is especially amazing. The energy and the buzz is so alive.

The Kentucky Derby itself isn’t just about the horses or the race.  It’s an entire experience of horses, races, traditions, money, fashion, gambling and partying. It’s flashy and fast, and I can see how people can get sucked in and addicted. The part I was most drawn to is the traditions. Horse Racing goes way back and some of the farms that have bred and/or raised these horses date back well over 100 years.  A lot are family businesses handed down throughout the generations. Barn colors and banners are raised and worn with incredible pride and showmanship.

For the Derby, we purchased inner field tickets. The field had an extremely limited viewing of any of the races (yes, there are other races all day long), but there is an entire festival with concerts, food and lots of drunk people in the inner field. It is one of the ultimate drink fests and has little to do with horses.

Liaison and his team heading out to the track.

Liaison and his team heading out to the track.

We knew we wouldn’t be able to see most of the races, but the views of the far rail were promising.  Once we got there, we quickly learned we wanted to see the horses more than the far rail portions of the race. Before every race, the racing horses are paraded and saddled up in the paddock area located directly behind the main grandstand. Our inner field tickets allowed us to walk around this area, and even into some parts of the back of the grandstand seats. Standing on the edge of the paddock area we got to see all the horses, jockeys, trainers, owners, and famous people close up. We really couldn’t have found a better spot to drink our mint julep and gawk at these incredible horses and their people.

Heather and Matt at the paddock area at the Kentucky Derby.

Heather and Matt at the paddock area at the Kentucky Derby.

My favorite part of the horse and people watching was admiring the bonds between the animals and their groomers/handlers. Most people think the strongest bond would be between the rider and horse or the trainer and horse. Nope, the most fantastic relationships are between the groom/keeper and the horse. He /she treats that horses with utmost care and love. The respect is incredible. I absolutely could have watched those interactions forever.

Matt's winning ticket.

Matt’s winning ticket.

Matt was all about the betting and had put his money down and twisted my arm to make a bet. I am not a gambler, and I especially don’t like putting a bet on races/games because I always lean toward the underdog. Even though I’ll Have Another got us there and I wanted him to win, I couldn’t bet on him because he was not the long shot or even the #2 horse. I know ridiculous.

Bodemeister, Mike Smith and their team heading to the starting gate

Bodemeister, Mike Smith and their team heading to the starting gate.

We decided to stay where we were and watch the race on the big screens from the paddock area. This was the best decision. It was packed, and the energy was explosive. The race started, and the place went crazy. People were screaming and jumping up and down having a great time. Bodemeister and  I’ll Have Another fought it out. Then it happened,  I’ll Have Another pulled in front and won it all. The place erupted with high fives, huge smiles, whooping, and laughter. It took a few minutes for people to start piling in line to collect their winnings. As we stood in line, the buzz of the next Triple Crown winner kept spinning and spreading.

I’ll Have Another and Mario Gutierrez about to make history.

I’ll Have Another and Mario Gutierrez about to make history.

[Matthew’s View]

I had no idea what to expect at the Kentucky Derby. I knew people dressed up for it, and I knew it was in Kentucky, but that was about it. My first thought upon entering the parking lot was, Whoa! I have been to a couple of tailgating parties before, but this was beyond that by about ten. One could classify the antics in the parking lot, between the RV’s, BBQ’s and crazy crowds as an event all to its own. After navigating the insanity and finding our way through the parking lot to the street to walk to the event, we were greeted with another round of block after block of vendors and still more hordes of partiers. At this point, I realized the Kentucky Derby was a much bigger deal than I thought.

The tailgaiting aftermath.

The tailgating aftermath.

We found our entrance gate and quickly entered a tunnel that led us to the infield, and one of the biggest parties I had ever seen. Bands, food of all kinds and alcohol surrounded us at every turn. I have never seen so many giant hats and bow ties in one place. We tried some food and tasty Mint Juleps, listened to some tunes then Heather stood in line with me while I placed my bets. About this time, we were getting pretty hot and Heather suggested we go to the horse paddock and check out the horses.

Happy jockeys and handlers.

Happy jockeys and handlers.

This was when I grasped the thought that there was still way more to the derby then I had seen. The flashy side of the race was on display for me now. Gentlemen in suits and women dressed up from head to toe; it was all very colorful and a great deal of fun to watch. We happened to get a pretty good spot at the fence around the paddock area, and that’s where I saw the Churchill Downs race board and all the horses. They were amazing to see, insanely fit horses that seemed to be shining with all the care that was afforded them and each one adorn with banners and crests almost like royalty. The parade to the field came next followed by musical performances, and the energy started surging through the crowd as the race time approached.

The owners, trainers and relatives heading to the race

The owners, trainers and relatives heading to the race

"Fashion" on display.

“Fashion” on display.

Glorious hats.

Glorious hats.

Now I am not much of a gambler, the occasional slot machine or lottery ticket is pretty much all I have ever fooled with, but something powerful just oozed over me at the thought of seeing my horse win. I couldn’t believe all the building emotions as the horses entered the starting gate and from the second the bell went off until the end of the race, it was an insane rollercoaster of sensations. The only way I could think of to describe it would be to picture the super bowl with 12 teams all playing at once for about two mins. By the end, I was exhausted, and it took a few minutes to realize even that my horse had won.

Travelasics:

The Kentucky Derby is run at The Churchill Downs in Louisville Kentucky. It is a race of 3-year-old horses destined for greatness. It has run every year without interruption since its inception in 1875. The race takes place on the first Saturday of May and is 1 ¼ miles long (2 kilometers). In addition to the race itself, a number of traditions play a large role in the Derby atmosphere. The derby drink is the mint julep, an iced drink consisting of bourbon, mint, and sugar. Burgoo, a thick stew of beef, chicken, pork and vegetables, is served as the traditional derby food. And of course not to be forgotten, the hats. Women appear in fine outfits lavishly accessorized with large, elaborate hats. The derby has several names: “The Run for the Roses”, because the winner is blanketed in 564 red roses, and “The Fastest 2 Minutes in Sports” or “The Most Exciting 2 Minutes in Sports” because that is roughly the length of the race. The Kentucky Derby is the first race in the U.S. Triple Crown, and the highest attended race in the sport. Easily beating the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes which are the second and third legs respectively of the Triple Crown.

We were on board for the ride. Next stop Preakness!

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