“That’s you! That’s Orb!” says the man next to Jennifer Patterson on the muddy track at Churchill Downs. Patterson, blond hair sticking like a horse’s tail from the back of a khaki baseball cap, “Orb” in red letters on the front, at last sees the late charge and springs straight up in the air.
That’s Orb. That’s her.
Standing on the track surface opposite the sixteenth pole, a once-in-a-lifetime perch with a lousy view for 85 percent of the race, Patterson, 27, has just learned she’s about to win the Kentucky Derby. Yes, she is going to win it. Because she’s an assistant to Claude (Shug) McGaughey III, soon-to-be winning trainer, and, as Orb’s regular exercise rider, she’s ridden the three-year-old son of Malibu Moon more than any human being on the planet. She’s invested in this horse and this race and this moment, and it’s about to pay off.
Now she springs into the air and twists, a near-perfect pirouette. She pirouettes again. And again.
Orb roars past in a spray of muddy water, a blur of red-and-white jockey’s silks almost as brown as his bay coat. All you hear are muffled hooves stamping tide-crashed sand and whips singing in the air. All you see is Patterson, pure joy, pirouetting one more time, another perfect landing.
And this is how the end begins.
It’s not five minutes after a stable hand removes the blanket of roses that Orb exits the winner’s circle, plodding stickily through the drying racetrack surface a half-mile counter-clockwise toward the barns. Another McGaughey assistant holds Orb’s bridle as Patterson walks alongside. Behind the winner, a parade of happy humans streams across the track toward the Churchill grandstand, back to the box seats and tables and champagne, some to the interview room, some to a post-race party, the crowd seeming to grow by the second, swelling like a frat party with hangers-on.
Orb’s party now consists of four: Patterson and three other training assistants. The horse wears a new blanket, his spoils for running the race of his life. It’s black, with gold and white lettering. It reads: “Kentucky Derby 2013 Winner.” There is the mix of drunken cheers and golf applause as he passes the grandstand, but, oddly, as Orb semi-circles around the first turn . . . nothing. The fans have turned their attention to the next race, the next mint julep, the nearest exit, hell, maybe next year’s Derby.
Orb has a paparazzi party of exactly two: photographer Ted Tarquinio and me. This is the Derby winner? Where are the armed guards and security? The throngs? Alas, Orb has returned to being another Thoroughbred led post-race back to the barns. And yet, as he crosses from the track to the backside, a day’s-done ballplayer stepping from diamond to dugout, a certain clubhouse respect descends. “There he is,” says a man in dirty boot-cut jeans, oversized rodeo-rider belt buckle and cowboy-style shirt, his face the very definition of grizzled. He could be an encyclopedia picture entry for stable hand.
“Orb!” shouts a woman who looks as if she may be a trainer’s wife, or a pari-mutuel clerk with a rare Derby Day off.
Patterson leads Orb to the quarantine barn. Drug test. Bath around back. A handful of interested backsiders gather to watch Orb washed and pampered.
Patterson stays with him always.
Jennifer Patterson of Team Orb.
Barn No. 43. Stall No. 1. A horseshoe’s heave from Longfield Avenue. Three college kids have rather cleverly decided to find Orb’s stall and do what college kids do these days: Take “selfies” in his stall with beers in hand. It’s not exactly the poignant moment Tarquinio and I are looking for, though the kids seem harmless enough. They backed the winner, it’s Derby, and the day has become as much about foolish pleasures as the next Foolish Pleasure. “Here come the cops!” I yell, just to see them scatter.
Orb returns, accompanied by Patterson and trailed by a mini-pack of admirers — far fewer than the number of media members who followed him out for his first workout. Now wearing a princely white blanket, edged in red, across his freshly groomed back, Orb tours shedrow with head up but not high. Then the strangest thing happens. (It sounds so staged that I fear some may believe it’s made up, except that Tarquinio was there and heard it too.) As Orb passes, several of the other horses, sinewy athletic necks extending from stalls, whinny at high volume, an equine symphony of salutations. As if in acknowledgement, Orb lifts his head higher. Hail to the king!
A woman in her 60s, wearing a light-blue windbreaker and thin scarf, arrives outside barn 43 for a look. She didn’t go to the track, no. She saw the race on television, and now she has arrived to pay her respects. And so she does, stoically standing in the cold drizzle — it’s started to rain again — observing quietly as Orb, after several turns around the barn, is led into his stall. Patterson and two others stab hay with pitchforks and feed the winner his victory snack. “Doesn’t he look beautiful?” the lady says rhetorically. She didn’t bet on him, no.
I ask Patterson for a few minutes of her time. The usual questions. How long had she ridden him? (From his very first trip to the track to train.) When did she know he was special? (Ditto.) How long had she worked for Shug? (Seven years; he’s like family.) To read Patterson’s comments in retrospect, out of context, they sound boilerplate. She loves the horse. Knew he was ready. Believed he could do it. But to hear Patterson, to see her talk about her baby, is to believe that she believes every word, syllable and letter. And why not? What’s the point of all this without faith?
Patterson politely thanks her interrogator for his interest and turns back toward stall No. 1. This time, she doesn’t pirouette. This time, she floats.