Add Event My Events Log In

Upcoming Events

    Magazine

    Print this page
     
    Even before the sun comes up, the stables stir to life. The horses are awake, and birds are putting up a cheeter-chatter racket in the rafters of every barn. The first person arrives and starts the coffee. Someone tunes a radio to a Spanish music station. At the barn next door, it’s country. An exercise rider hangs tack outside the stall of the first horse scheduled to gallop, and places his or her saddle on the wall nearby. Horses look out the stall doors at their people. A pet goat appears, to supervise. In the stall, a groom runs a brush over a ticklish filly, deftly flicking flecks of straw out of mane and tail.
     
    Outside the barn, the sky changes from black to deep blue, with the very first glints of orange sunrise breaking over distant rooftops. A hint of fog begins to lift as, all of a sudden, horses come out of every barn, riders aboard, headed for the track.
     
    This is all about breathing in the atmosphere of springtime in Kentucky, when excitement courses through the backside barns at Churchill Downs in the days before the Kentucky Derby. Beautiful mornings and sleek Thoroughbreds — and an ever-present hint of history and tradition. Even on mornings when it is cold and rainy, visitors will usually find a friendly shedrow to duck under — and be in a barn with racehorses. How cool is that? Then go up to the track to see them train.
     
    Some mornings, it is one fast workout after another. One powerful stretch move blurring to the next. And more beautiful coats than a Fifth Avenue furrier. Almost all the Derby candidates arrive in Louisville coming off first- and second-place finishes in the traditional big Derby preps. Over here’s the winner of New York’s Wood Memorial. Over there is the Florida Derby champion. And arriving sometime later this morning is the Santa Anita Derby winner. Plus the occasional invaders from overseas. Who can figure their form? Many will work strongly. But only one will be The One.
     
    The spectacle’s cast includes people. Like the artist Pierre “Peb” Bellocq melding caricatures of racing personalities into a turf tableau. There’s D. Wayne! And over there is another trainer, Todd Pletcher, with no less than five candidates for this Derby — and he’s got them all lined up in perfect formation. All getting washed down after galloping on the track. How do they keep them in line like that? Then here’s Pat Day. He won 8,804 races as a jockey. Can you even imagine that? And former jockey Angel Cordero, who won the 100th Derby four decades ago, plus two more. And isn’t that Patrice Jacobs Wolfson? She owned Affirmed, the last Triple Crown winner, in 1978. Each spring, the Kentucky Derby magnetically draws the racing game’s big stars. Legendary turf personalities revisiting the scenes they lived in Derbies past. And plain folks too. Some turning out on early mornings on the backside for the very first time.
     
    And this is where it starts. In among the rows of white-painted barns platted out like subdivision row houses. The backside of the racetrack. A place where there’s more concrete than lush lawns. More gravel than soft dirt. More five-gallon plastic buckets than hand-tooled leather saddles. A lot more working people than wealthy horse owners. And more working-class horses than turf stars. One could hardly call the place beautiful. But it is gloriously alive! Bustling with chores and quaint ways. The sun coming up, bathing the morning in golden light.
     
    It’s the horses that bring beauty to the setting. And no matter when one arrives on the scene — this spring, or decades ago, or a century back — the Ancient Downs is always a throwback to an earlier time.
     
    William Faulkner was on hand for the famous 1955 Kentucky Derby, billed as a battle of East vs. West, Nashua vs. Swaps, Arcaro vs. Shoemaker, East Coast society vs. Western cowboys. But in a famous essay, “Kentucky: May: Saturday,” written for Sports Illustrated, Faulkner seemed less interested in the race than the magic of the moments leading up to it. In particular, the novelist captured the almost fictional feel of the backside barn world at Churchill Downs:
     
    Even from just passing the stables, you carry with you the smell of liniment and ammonia and straw — the strong quiet aroma of horses. And even before we reach the track we can hear horses — the light hard rapid thud of hooves mounting into crescendo and already fading rapidly on. And now in the gray early light we can see them, in couples and groups at canter or hand-gallop under the exercise boys. Then one alone, at once furious and solitary, going full out, breezed, the rider hunched forward, excrescent and precarious, not of the horse but simply (for the instant) with it, in the conventional posture of speed — and who knows, perhaps the two of them, man and horse both: the animal dreaming, hoping that for that moment at least it looked like Whirlaway or Citation, the boy for that moment at least that he was indistinguishable from Arcaro or Earl Sande, perhaps feeling already across his knees the scented sweep of the victorious garland.
     
    At Churchill Downs, the grandstand is the people part of the game. On the backside, horses outnumber people, and everything revolves around them. No frisky foals or stately stallions here — these are professional racehorses. During a Churchill Downs meet, more than 1,000 horses occupy stables in the barns — numbered 1 through 48; there is no Barn 13 — and more will “ship in” from nearby tracks and training centers on race days.
    For a few hours each morning, the backside is a beehive of activity, with exercise riders taking the barn-dwellers to the track for exercise and training. This training is not like a human teaching a dog to sit or roll over. Oh, every once in a while, you’ll come across somebody who has taught a horse to “shake a paw” or some such thing. But they don’t chase Frisbees. (For one thing, a Frisbee flies too slowly for a horse.) Horse training is about physical conditioning. Speed training. Building wind and muscle and endurance — with some attention paid to manners, minding the command of the rider. That’s important, and often accomplished not by the trainer but by exercise riders. Young horses practice going in and out of the starting gate, learning to stand, wait and break! It’s different than other sports. Thoroughbreds don’t run complicated plays. They don’t look over pitches. What they do is go straight and run far. Better than any other animal on the planet, including humans. Running is their game, and the sport of horse racing is built around that one, stellar skill. Horses understand running from birth. When teamed with a skilled jockey, it’s something to see.
     
    A lot of race preparation is simple. If a horse fires a fast work, the trainer will be beaming the next day if the horse “eats up” well with a hardy appetite — showing the work didn’t take any steam out of the steed. Maybe left it eager for more. “Didn’t miss an oat,” the trainer will beam, like a CEO reporting a record quarter to the board. “Licked the tub clean.”
     
    When horses are in top form, you can see it in their coats. Sunlight glints off chestnut flanks and casts prisms of color in black manes and tails. Just like you see humans with a radiant complexion. Horses that are “well,” as the Irish lads say, exude health and brim with vigor. When they go to the track to train, they’re happy and eager. Many is the Derby trainer who arrives in Kentucky with a top contender, a horse already sharp off a big effort in an important prep race. The trainer will say, “Now, all we want to do is keep him happy.”
     
    Sounds silly. But they mean it.
     
    Most days, the work around the barns is routine. Horses go to the track, then are “walked out” to cool down, bathed and put up. Then fed a handsome meal of top-quality racehorse oats, often laced with molasses. The unbaked oats are too tough for a human to chew. But if you taste ’em, you’d think that maybe with a little milk poured over the top, a tub of sweet feed could rival a bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats. Good stuff. And plenty of fresh water. No substitute for good water. The grooms pitch out old straw and toss in a fresh bed, then hang up a rack of alfalfa hay for the horse to munch on through the day. It is a pastoral life — a throwback to an earlier, simpler time.
     
    Until Derby Week.
     
    Then, electricity zings through the backside air. Visitors come and go in droves, the barns packed with cars and people. Even backside workers who aren’t connected to Derby horses seem to move with a higher sense of purpose. It’s their Derby too. And Kentucky Derby colts aren’t the only stars. Other top horses arrive at the Downs to compete in a veritable parade of top stakes races scheduled for Oaks and Derby. Local owners strive to have their stables’ best runners at tip-top for Derby Week.
     
    “Derby Week, there’s a tremendous flow of adrenaline in the barn,” says two-time Derby-winning trainer Carl Nafzger. “This is where you want to be. This is the morning. This is the day.”
     
    It’s Monday morning, five days before the 2013 Kentucky Derby, and trainer Shug McGaughey has a four-furlong (half-mile) workout scheduled for Orb. The Florida Derby winner, a handsomely bred colt named for the ancient Greek word for “heavenly sphere” (his sire is Malibu Moon), looms as one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby. Orb has put in his strong races and plenty of long, stamina-building gallops, and now McGaughey will be looking to sharpen Orb’s speed, to put him on edge for the race of his life.
    At McGaughey’s Barn 43, Orb’s regular exercise rider, Jennifer Patterson, prepares to ride the horse this morning. Patterson is McGaughey’s trusted “hands aboard,” who has been with Orb all along. Orb will work “in company” with another horse from the trainer’s barn that sports a saddlecloth identifying him as “Workmate.” That’s the usual way. For easy identification, Derby horses carry their name on the special yellow Derby saddlecloth, and the workmate is “Workmate.” What isn’t usual is that on this morning, Orb’s Derby jockey, Joel Rosario, will ride Workmate.
     
    Several watch from the grandstand to see the work from the top of the stretch to the finish. That’s the final quarter-mile of the half-mile test, with the work winding up down the lane beneath the Twin Spires. If Orb has it, you’ll be able to see it. The grandstand still smells faintly of beer from Saturday’s opening-night gala — and years of being a racetrack. But up in the boxes, breezes blow, bringing the scent of newly mown lawns in the neighborhood, and rain coming soon. But not yet. Out on the track, the regular morning training break halts all horse activity. Tractors fan out three wide, reconditioning the dirt surface — harrow teeth honing it to just the right cushion, fluffing it up, combing narrow furrows in the tan dirt that make a perfect pinstriped path for horses to follow. Except these kind of horses don’t follow. They fly.
     
    Now the track is open again, and, through binoculars, you can see horses appearing off in the distance, milling about — until here comes Orb and Workmate around the turn into the top of the stretch. Both horses winging it. Their hooves touch down in a double staccato rhythm. Eight legs, bounding fores and afts, almost in sync. Orb now angles up on the outside of Workmate, still held tight.
     
    Then asked to go!
     
    Dropping his head, lowering his shoulders, cocking up his back end, and pushing off with power, long and low into a drive. Cameras click, watches click, and they are gone, straight as two strings down the stretch to the finish line a quarter-mile away.
     
    It’s all over in 47 seconds.
     
    Just a glimmer this morning. That’s it. That’s all the speed we’ll see from Mr. Orb until 6:30 p.m. Saturday, when the starting gates spring open for the 139th Run for the Roses.
     

    Share On:

    Upcoming Events

      Event Finder

      Subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or RSS