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    On Nov. 3, 2018, most of the world met Michael Wells-Rody as he spun through the evening’s news cycle. Up flashed his mug shot: blue eyes staring off to the side, brown hair dented where a black cowboy hat featuring feathers and turquoise beading earlier sat. That hat, the cowboy boots, jeans, a pink tie popping beneath a gray sports coat — Wells-Rody had assembled a look of polished grit for his trip to the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs. Just before four in the afternoon, out came the swagger. Wells-Rody walked into a restricted tunnel that worms beneath the grandstand, not a hint of hesitation. He mounted a black-and-white spotted horse and headed for the winner’s circle.

    At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Wells-Rody is no jockey. But no matter, he was riding a horse at Churchill Downs, for what would become his famed two minutes. Or just shy of two minutes because right about when he and his horse touched the track near the winner’s circle, the yelling exploded. Fancy guys in fancy coats yelling, cops yelling, Wells-Rody soon yelling. The evening’s headline: Drunken Man Takes Breeders’ Cup Horse on a Joyride. Such stories live wild and free these days. Over the next few hours, off it soared, across the country, then the planet, a little firework on the news feed.

    An arrest citation outlined why police charged him with public intoxication and disorderly conduct. It stated that Wells-Rody “was manifestly under the influence” of alcohol when he “snuck into a restricted area” and became “loud and disorderly” when asked to leave, causing “alarm” among Churchill Downs staff.

    Wells-Rody’s side? That horse he mounted: It’s an American Paint named Lightening. At least that was its name from about 2010 to 2014, back when it lived on the Wells-Rody family farm in Georgetown, Kentucky. It had a vicious temper, Wells-Rody says, so his family sold it to a guy in Paris, Kentucky, who trains ponies for work at racetracks.

    At the Breeders’ Cup, Wells-Rody and his dad and brother recognized Lightening. In jest, a dare. Wells-Rody likes pushing luck, plunging into “the midst of everything.” He accepted. “I’ll ride it,” he said. No one stopped him when he passed through doors leading to the tunnel. He eyed the ponies, all lined up, waiting to go on the track. Wells-Rody approached Lightening’s handler. “Hey, this used to be my horse. Care if I ride him?” he asked. He says the guy answered, “Sure.” (Later, during all the yelling, Wells-Rody was pressed on who granted him permission, but, he says, “I don’t rat.” A spokesperson for Churchill Downs says the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission suspended the license of the contractor in charge of the ponies for the remainder of the fall meet after this incident.)

    Yes, Wells-Rody was enjoying some “Old No. 7” that day but denies being “manifestly” wasted — more like whiskey-confident. And, yes, he may have said an “eff you,” but that only came after he dismounted Lightening and was handing the horse “back to the feller” it belonged to. The stunt? Brief, ballsy, harmless, in his mind. “They cut me off at the door,” Wells-Rody says. “And the guy doing all the hooting and hollering said he was the racing commissioner.” Anger and accusations broiled. Out slipped an “eff you” (the saltier version). Minutes later, handcuffs clicked at the 24-year-old’s wrists, just above the meaty hands coarsened by his job as a farrier, mostly at horse farms. (He says he has worked at Keeneland but not Churchill.) Wells-Rody says he was “put in the paddy wagon” and landed in jail for several hours.

    When folded into the main holding cell, someone asked him what he was in for. Before Wells-Rody could tell the whole tale, he sampled celebrity status. We just saw you on the news, a few of the men said. A friend who lives in Australia caught his mug shot half a world away. “You in jail?” she messaged him. Comments dripped down from news stories, branding Wells-Rody a legend or a hooligan.

    A few days later, Wells-Rody opted for modest attire — a blue dress shirt tucked into belted khakis — for his appearance in Jefferson County District Court. His mischief ended up costing $145 in court fees, and he was told he must complete 25 hours of community service. He dutifully put in his time at a homeless shelter in Georgetown. Some days he weeded and mulched, other days he cleaned upholstery. One morning, he says, he showed up with 15 pounds of flour, four pounds of cheese, six pounds of bacon and seven dozen eggs (courtesy of chickens from his family farm) to cook up fresh cathead biscuits for the place.

    His brief fame hasn’t changed life much. He’s still shoeing horses. The ordeal is fodder for a good laugh, like when his dad jokes that out of his five kids, “Congratulations, son, you’re the first to go to jail.” Wells-Rody is banned from Churchill Downs. He’d like to attend Derby one day, maybe with the help of a giant hat that would shield his face. Or he could say sorry. Before Wells-Rody was hauled to jail, he was asked to sign a piece of paper agreeing that he’ll never return to the racetrack unless he writes a letter of apology. Churchill Downs is still waiting.

    Racing is built on thrill, mostly from a safe distance, squished behind rails and gates. On Nov. 3, 2018, Wells-Rody itched to steal a bit of that thunder. So he hopped on Lightening. It’s quite a story. Why go tidying up the ending? “I could write a letter but it’s not going to be genuine,” he says. “I’m not really sorry about it.”

    This originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "The Joy Rider." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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