Note: While I consider myself at least semi-professional in the racing industry, this post is written primarily from a fan’s standpoint. But then, that’s how so many in the industry, I think, begin and it is certainly true for me. The day I am jaded about the great horses and the huge events is the day I won’t be interested in the sport – in other words, it will never happen!

Breeders’ Cup Saturday began for me in the pre-dawn hours, while a luminous moon still rode high in the sky as I set out for a friend’s house en-route to Keeneland. She had purchased parking access on the track, and later I would meet up with two other friends, all part of our game plan to be at the front of the rail for the day’s races. In fact, the situation had been scoped out beforehand. With the Cup being at Keeneland for the first time ever, logistics were definitely a key factor.

For Keeneland, this meant creating the best experience possible for everyone, and finding the way to balance accommodating all who could be accommodated at their boutique track, one of the smaller and more unique tracks the Cup has had as a host. Yet Keeneland represents the epitome of being a top-notch host and providing a memorable experience.

It still surprised me to hear they would have the Cup, however. It just didn’t seem practical. Even the track’s configuration, as I read later, made it challenging to figure out where to place temporary seating. Most of the land around the main track is hilly, with such a steep drop around the turn past the finish line that it was completely ruled out for being used for temporary seating.

That left the top of the stretch to be the home of the Maker’s Mark Bourbon Lounge for the duration of October, also the setting of the Distaff and Classic post position draws at the beginning of Breeders’ Cup week. It was spacious, comfortably furnished, was equipped to serve food on-site, and best of all had large windows from wall to wall that provided a view of the top of the stretch as the horses begin to gear down for the run to the wire.

We did get to experience the Maker’s Mark Bourbon Lounge during the post position draws, but for the big day on Saturday, our logistics plan involved making use of our general admission access to get the best spot we could. Our friends, who had also done some reconnaissance like Keeneland, found that the best place for us to sit would be right near the section in the grandstand marked “I.”

In our first – but by no means last – stroke of luck that day, we got a bench right at the rail, and absolutely even with the sign reading “I.” This also put us right in front of the big screen, ideal for when our view was obscured as the horses ran along the backstretch.

Our spot for the day’s races

A 6 a.m. arrival and walk through the still and quiet field that is used for free parking during the usual fall meet found me at the front of the line to get a bench, and then we ran for it when the gates opened at last. It worked. We were right in front, and grabbed two benches before they were all claimed a mere five minutes after the gates opened. The stage was set for all of us to see a great day of racing, and I knew then it was worth it to have been up as early as I was and to wait that long.

Then we began enjoying our day at the races. Typically I attend alone, and prefer it in most cases. It allows me the freedom to get the photos I want or otherwise enjoy the experience on my own terms. But this time, not only was the company a necessity for all of us to keep our “claim” on the spot we had staked out when one or more of us had to leave it, it was also a day meant to be shared. There were too many good races and amazing horses participating not to want to share it with people who were passionate about the sport the same way I was.

I had been to several Breeders’ Cups over the years. I had not been able to keep a continuous attendance at them like I had at the Derby. That was just not possible due to life’s circumstances and the traveling nature of the Cup, especially when it went to the West Coast. That is not to say that I hope it stops traveling. That keeps it fresh and different, to experience how each different track manages the event. It also stays true to the original concept of the Breeders’ Cup, and I firmly believe it should remain that way. I like that unique aspect of it, and the varied experiences I’ve had at the four different tracks where I’ve seen it, Keeneland now included.

Even while I live here and had watched the preparations well in advance of this weekend, it still felt a bit surreal at times that I was seeing a Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland. It’s just, I’ve gone to this track for so long and seen so many big races and wonderful horses here. Yet all the while, due to its smaller size, I never dreamed it would be chosen to host a Cup. Does it deserve one? Absolutely. This is the largest cradle of the racing and breeding industry in America, and Keeneland most assuredly knows how to provide a top-notch experience and manage large race days. The only glitches we experienced were, I think, from temporary help who possibly did not realize Keeneland’s commitment to excellent service.

No one who helped us in the track lost sight of that element of Keeneland’s mission. It was evident from the time we entered the gate and were given Breeders’ Cup programs free. I have never attended another track where that occurred. It continued as the ponies were brought railside to be patted and fed peppermints.

some of the pony “brigade” gets acquainted with attendees

It’s just a nice touch, a moment of engagement with patrons. We pat the impressive-looking Harley, the largest track “pony” I’ve ever seen. He’s like an equine tank, this Percheron/Belgian and Appaloosa cross.

Harley power, as the huge

Harley power, as the huge “pony” accompanies a racehorse warming up

We also saw the famous Applesauce, another Appaloosa, looking dapper in a Breeders’ Cup saddlecloth as he was ridden by Donna Brothers as she provided on-air commentary for NBC.

But before all that, we enjoyed two pre-Breeders’ Cup stakes races.

the first two races of the day

Then it was time for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, the first Breeders’ Cup race of the day. I was greatly looking forward to seeing Rachel Alexandra’s filly Rachel’s Valentina. It was wonderful that she had an entrant in the Breeders’ Cup, and that Rachel’s Valentina had qualified and risen to being good enough for that level of competition in only her third career start. I was proud of this filly for being a participant on one of racing’s biggest stages, as proud as if I had an ownership stake in her.

The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies

It was also my first time seeing her race. I watched her walk around the paddock a few times, her distinctive heart-shaped blaze making her easy to identify, and then made my way to the walking ring. Keeneland’s usual traditions had been altered a bit for the Breeders’ Cup. The horses were saddled and the jockeys were given a leg up all in the paddock. By the time they proceeded to the walking ring, where they usually circled a few more times and then had their jockeys get a leg up, they only walked around once and then headed towards the tunnel and to the track.

The jockeys also were in a cordoned-off area outside the jockeys’ quarters entrance, manned by two employees checking credentials for access. A small crowd gathered there outside the barrier hoping for photographs or autographs, and I later saw two jockeys there taking a moment to enjoy getting to be rail-side at the walking ring without fan or patron “interference.”

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It probably was a nice change of pace from just sitting in the jockeys’ quarters all day between races.

It was still uncrowded enough that I was able to easily photograph Rachel’s Valentina and the other Juvenile Fillies’ entrants in the walking ring and get back to our bench in time to see them on the track and watch the race.

I have since read that Todd Pletcher, Rachel’s Valentina’s trainer, was disappointed she finished second. Understandable, I suppose, since the difference between a win and a second-place finish in such a prestigious race can affect a horse’s value and more than that, perhaps appear to reflect on ability. Yet when I looked at her effort, I was still proud of her. She finished second in a race that drew the best juvenile fillies, and was only bested by a filly with more experience. Songbird, the victor, brought a perfect 3-for-3 race record to the Juvenile Fillies, and Rachel’s Valentina brought a 2-for-2 record. It also must be considered that Rachel’s Valentina went from a maiden race straight to winning a Grade 1, while Songbird had won 2 Grade 1 races before this. She may have had a slight edge, but Rachel’s Valentina showed a world of potential. She clearly has class and talent, and looking at the undefeated race records she and Songbird both brought into the Juvenile Fillies, they appeared on paper to be the best in the field, and that is just how they ran. My friends and I both saw that Rachel’s Valentina should just continue to improve as she gets older, and I hope to attend more of her races in the future. As long as she stays healthy and sound, who knows? She may even appear in the starting gate for the 2016 Kentucky Oaks. If she does, I will attend my first Oaks. It’s overdue, and I should have been there when her dam unleashed her 20-length tour-de-force prior to her 2009 Preakness victory.

I have realized since too what an incredible talent Songbird is. I have not been able to watch race recaps as much I would like this year, and some of these things have been under the radar for me. Yet when I heard Mike Smith, Songbird’s jockey, say he is considering retirement but “not while Songbird is still racing,” I realized how good she is. I am a bit biased towards Rachel’s Valentina due to the esteem I have for her dam, and also how she herself has shone even in her earliest forays into racing. But that aside, she is a force to be reckoned with too, and there is no shame in losing to a filly of the caliber of Songbird.

Aside from seeing Rachel’s Valentina race for the first time in person and being up front for all the Breeders’ Cup races, I also had another mission. While I view being at the races, the sales, and other racing-related events from a professional standpoint to keep tabs on what is happening in the industry, there is no denying it is my passion for the sport that has driven me to want to be involved to the extent that it is a calling and not just a pastime, even while it all encompasses some of the most enjoyable ways to spend my time.

That other mission could be described as being one I wanted to fulfill purely from a “fan” standpoint. That was part of it, yet it also was part of that deep passion I have for the sport. It was so incredible for me, as for many, to witness another Triple Crown winner at last, and the first in my lifetime. And having seen over the years how gracious Victor Espinoza is, I did want a photo with the first jockey to win the Triple Crown in 37 years.

Just like placing my bets (which I actually did just to have as souvenirs, since Keeneland prints the horse’s name on them), I knew getting the photo with Espinoza would be something to do early in the day, before the crowds grew and getting around became more difficult. While Keeneland did restrict the number of attendees, I also knew from going to the Derby and to huge stakes days here at Keeneland that the later it got, the larger the crowds would become and the harder it would be to get through the crowds.

So I waited outside the cordoned-off area near the jockeys’ quarters, labeled “The Enclosure,” hoping to get a photo early in the race day.

There was a lot more camaraderie than I expected on a day when a lot of people were vying for a few choice spots along the paddock rails and the track rail. In spite of the intermittent rain that fell throughout the day and a temperature that was chillier than had originally been forecast, it was a good day at the track.

It was also, of course, Halloween. I had been so focused on it being Breeders’ Cup Saturday, that didn’t really register again until I saw several people in costumes. Several variations of representations of American Pharoah were the most popular.

While outside the jockeys’ quarters waiting to get a photo with Espinoza, I also stood next to a young woman who had applied temporary Halloween tattoos to her face. They went well with her somewhat Gothic look. She and her friend were waiting for autographs so we chatted a bit and I asked her friend if she’d take my photo with Espinoza. When he came back from riding his first race of the day, he agreed to the photo but thought I and the young woman with the Halloween tattoos were going to take one together, so when I gave my camera to her friend and turned back around he was gone. Still, he was as gracious as ever with the public and I figured I could try again after his next ride.

From the screen near the walking ring, I watched Mongolian Saturday, a horse so fractious he practically ran out to the track with his jockey Florent Geroux alongside instead of onboard, win the Turf Sprint. It seemed fitting, because he practically had started sprinting before even reaching the starting gate.

Next up was the Filly and Mare Sprint, contested by Judy the Beauty, Fioretti, Cavorting, and Taris, among other incredibly accomplished mares.

Espinoza returned after the race, one of the last to come back, and I handed my camera to a nice man who had been standing nearby gathering autographs. We talked a bit as well, and I enjoyed talking racing. He admitted he had just started following racing this year, and I told him he picked a good year with the first Triple Crown winner in decades. I appreciated how my mission became one other people were willing to help me with, and it all worked out the second time. I don’t think Espinoza rides at Keeneland often; I sure couldn’t remember seeing him here before this meet, so I wanted to jump at the chance to get the photo.


With that taken care of, I returned to my friends and our bench spot for the first time in an hour and we watched the horses for the Filly and Mare Turf in the post parade. They were absent Hard Not to Like, my pick, after she was a late scratch due to not liking the soft going that was present on the turf course at the time. As with any Breeders’ Cup race, it was still a stellar field. When they hit the wire, Stephanie’s Kitten was an emphatic winner.

It was another exciting conclusion in a day that was full of incredibly exciting races. I recalled seeing her run by on the main track during morning training on Thursday, after we saw Pharoah, and how it was a preview of the power that propelled her home in first place two days later.

It was also exciting to see Runhappy best his thirteen opponents in the $1.5 million Sprint, a huge coup for his female trainer and her six-horse string. We had spoken to his excited connections Wednesday morning as he trained on the main track, and that was enough to make me realize what this victory would mean to them. Edgar Prado and the son of Super Saver teamed up to run past all the rest.

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A photographer in the Halloween spirit walks by

A photographer in the Halloween spirit walks by

The starting gate was in place on the turf course in front of the grandstand as the field for the Mile began the post parade. Grand Arch was the first one by. He had impressed me with his Shadwell Turf Mile win and also each time I saw him in morning training leading up to his start in the Mile. As with most Breeders’ Cup races on turf, he would also be running against a large number of entrants from Europe. These included Make Believe, ranked by Longines as one of the world’s best racehorses, and the filly Tepin. One of his U.S. opponents was Tourist, a stunning son of Tiznow that caught my eye each time I saw him during the morning training hours.

An unfortunate drop of my zoom lens a few days before the Breeders’ Cup kept me from trying to get photos of turf races; besides our view was nearly even with the outer rail. Yet we could definitely see Tepin’s emphatic victory as she drew clear by 2 1/4 lengths.

It was nice to see some of the horses’ connections give them pats on the neck as they went back to the barns, even if they weren’t the winners.


After all, even qualifying to be in a Breeders’ Cup race is an accomplishment, a sentiment I would find reiterated in the next race when I spoke to a breeder of one the colts in the Juvenile several days after the race was run.

Cocked and Loaded, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, was bred by Bob Austin of Little River Farm, where I briefly worked this summer.

Cocked and Loaded in the post parade for the Juvenile

Cocked and Loaded in the post parade for the Juvenile

When I ran into Austin’s wife at the Fasig-Tipton sale, she did agree that it was great just to have him in the Cup. He finished fifth, but out of a large field composed of some of the best two-year-olds, that absolutely leaves room to improve and progress at the age of three. The Juvenile contained a lot of horses I’d been impressed by while watching them train: Ralis, Isotherm, and Greenpointcrusader, to name a few. The race belonged to Nyquist and Mario Guiterrez, however, as they just managed to hold off Swipe and Victor Espinoza at the wire.

Then I left my seat for the first time in a while. I planned to skip watching the Turf to get a spot at the rail to watch Pharoah enter the paddock.

I listened to the race call for the Turf while waiting but couldn’t see a screen. The race call made it sound like one of the best races of the day. It sounded like one horse took off to a 20-length lead in the early stages! While it was unlikely that large margin could be sustained, as I’ve observed quite a few turf races seem to end in blanket finishes, it still must have been an impressive-looking way to begin the race. Even when the lead dwindled slightly to 15 lengths that still seemed incredible for a turf race. This is a race I still need to go back and watch. I have at this time still just heard that race call – there has just been so much happening this week with the Breeders’ Cup and that rolled right into the Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland sales and farm open houses. It’s been a good week full of things I love to do, but it’s left little time for being at home or watching TV.

It sounds like from the race call that the young Galileo filly Found most impressively grabbed the victory in the $3 million race in the most dramatic and thrilling fashion, beating a a large number of horses older than her. That number included Golden Horn, considered second only to American Pharoah on the Longines Best Racehorses Rankings.

While we did have our spot at the front of the rail with its unimpeded view of the track, I came to the paddock before the Classic because I just wanted to see Pharoah as much as possible before he left the track for the last time. I wasn’t sure whether to stand by his tree, which was right by the rail, or to stand near the entrance to the paddock. When I saw his tree already was lined with people about 5 deep, I decided to go to a spot near the paddock entrance. The people standing near the tree with his post position number had indicated from their conversations that they were going to sit out watching the Turf, as I was, to hopefully catch a glimpse of him.

It seemed I’d have a better chance at seeing him by the paddock entrance, so that’s where I went. There were also people waiting there for him, but the crowd was only about 3 deep in that area. In one more of several spots of luck I had that day, two people left and I managed to squeeze in between people right up at the front. It matters when you are somewhat short and want a good view. I also happened to get a spot where all the people in the paddock didn’t obscure my view by where they chose to stand.

The wait for Pharoah felt somewhat interminable though. It wasn’t as long as the wait between races for the Derby horses to enter the paddock during that event, however. If you skip a race and wait for them, you stand in one spot for about an hour and a half. Yet even with a more typical amount of time between races, the horses didn’t even enter the paddock until about 5:23, twelve minutes before the race had been due to be off, according to the program. Still, as each minute ticked by the anticipation was almost palpable. He finally appeared at last, behind Hard Aces, Keen Ice, Frosted, Effinex, Honor Code, and Gleneagles. While those are not horses to be dismissed at all, and Effinex had such an air about him as he entered the paddock, it just felt like it made the wait even longer to see Pharoah with that many horses coming in before him.

– some of the field for the Breeders’ Cup Classic

I watched him circle twice before I decided I needed to get to my seat. There were so many more people here than when we had arrived that I knew I’d only be doing myself a favor by giving myself as much time as possible to get back to my seat. That was a wise move, as it turned out to be impossible to see where my friends were sitting with all the people gathered now to hope for even just a glimpse of the race, or just to be able to say they were there when a Triple Crown winner concluded his career, hopefully in victory and draped in the Breeders’ Cup garland of purple and gold.

I seriously began to wonder if I was going to miss seeing his race at our prime spot, so carefully selected. Determination took over. There was no way I got up at 4:30 in the morning and sat at the entrance prior to 7 a.m. not to be at the front for Pharoah, as had been the plan all along.

This is when another stroke of luck came my way. I realized after trying to weave through the crowd that the only way I’d get through to our bench was to start jumping over other people’s benches. Fortunately, everyone whose bench I jumped across was understanding of my attempt to get back to our spot instead of taking the stance that I was trying to take the spots they had claimed for themselves. It worked, and I was so relieved to see our bench and jump into place shortly before the horses arrived for the post parade.

It was funny, too, because one woman who had been near our spot most of the day said, “Where’d you come from? You jumped in like a ninja!” Hey, if that’s another part of what it takes to see Pharoah up close in a race one more time, then yes, I’d be like a ninja!

The stage was set, and of course the roars were tremendous each time Pharoah went by a new part of the grandstand and when his name was announced as Kurt Becker mentioned each horse during he post parade.

– a bit of the post parade for the Classic

The field Pharoah faced in the starting gate for this Breeders’ Cup Classic was arguably one of the deepest, most talented fields assembled. And I knew, even as brilliant as Pharoah is, any number of horses could give him a serious run for the money. It was hard to count any of them out, with a combined 11 Grade 1 or Group 1 victories spread among his eight opponents.

When they broke from the gate, the lead was almost immediately claimed by Espinoza and American Pharoah, just as they had done in the Belmont Stakes. I wondered, when they contested the Belmont, if a horse could sustain a lead wire-to-wire in a 1 ½ mile race. The answer to that question is well-known; for a horse like Pharoah, that lead most certainly could be maintained and even increased by the time he crossed the wire.

Clearly, Espinoza knows Pharoah as a mount almost better than anyone. I wouldn’t say I was doubting him exactly. And I knew full well that Pharoah’s legacy of greatness would be assured no matter how he finished in this race. “Triple Crown winner” is all it takes for that to be assured.

Yet it would have been even more heart-wrenching to see him take the lead initially and then have it snatched away in the shadow of the wire.

I implored him to “hold on, buddy, hold on buddy,” as they began to round the turn and straighten out for the run to the homestretch, and Pharoah still had a comfortable lead, as everyone began to vie for their own shot at glory and to try to gobble up some of the ground that separated them from Pharoah.

Pandemonium began to erupt as Pharoah could not be caught. It was one more glorious glimpse of how he’s just in a class of his own. It was one more beautiful tour-de-force in an already historic career, historic long before it concluded. It was Pharoah doing what he does best, running so easily away from his competition, each giving their all behind him and yet none being able to come close.

My one somewhat passable photo of Pharoah racing into the history books once more

My one somewhat passable photo of Pharoah racing into the history books once more

I wish I could write it so much more eloquently, but we’ve all seen him run either on TV or in person, and we’ve all seen the way he just seems to float over the track.

This was more about sheer emotion, sheer poetry in motion as he reached the wire first and brought the house down. Tears were just streaming down my face even as I jumped up and down with joy and hugged my friend and we were just elated we were there for his last race, and to see perfection one more time. How often do you really get the storybook ending, where the best horse wins once more and unleashes a win, a feeling, that anyone who was there will never forget. Pharoah deserved no less that that storybook ending, and he made it happen. He left such a stellar group of horses lost in his wake, unable to even get close, and that too is testament to his ability. His opponents were some of the best in the world, but not the best in the world. That title more than ever belongs to Pharoah, as Longines ranked him.

As he turned back towards the grandstand, the roar of noise rose again and the returning photographers encouraged everyone on the rail to play up their excitement once again for photos to forever capture the moment.

That race, this horse, those feelings of seeing him win, of seeing him receive his blanket of purple and gold, they are etched in my memory and so is the glow of seeing him go out on top, in a race that is a pinnacle of racing.

That will never fade, and neither will how it felt to see him win the Crown. That took a while to sink in, that he had won the Crown, and it will take a while to sink in that he is now retired, that seeing him run so effortlessly and with such perfection of motion, is a door that has now closed.

Not that this is time to dwell on that – he gave so much and I couldn’t ask for more. He gave this sport its first Triple Crown winner when I began to wonder if I’d ever see one in my lifetime. He showed me what it takes to be a Triple Crown winner, a horse who doesn’t have to have everything go his way – a horse who can win whether he likes the track, the conditions, or not. He just overcomes.

Of course, he was mortal. He couldn’t overcome the grind of the Triple Crown, and a speed duel with Frosted to still hold off Keen Ice. Yet even in that race, his greatness showed. He didn’t throw in the towel; he still had enough in him to capture second place, and nearly looked like he’d still win. A lesser horse, even many good horses, would have backed up.

This horse is extraordinary on so many levels – his heart, his will to win, his stride, his kind nature, the way nothing seems to faze him, the way he runs as a photographer’s dream with ears always pricked – and I am so grateful to the Zayats and Baffert for taking their star where the fans wanted to see him, and allowing them to meet him between races. They’ve given us a lifetime of memories, and were so gracious about sharing Pharoah.

Espinoza took one more opportunity to show him to his adoring public after another decisive victory. He gave me my favorite Derby memory ever when he brought Pharoah right in front of us right after his win and tipped his cap to the cheers that rocked the Churchill Downs grandstand that day. I’ve now followed Pharoah’s journey avidly from the first Saturday in May to the last Saturday in October, from one victory lap that began his charge into the history books to one final victory lap that firmly placed him among racing’s all-time greats. Horse of the Year honors and a place of honor in the Hall of Fame are sure to be in his future as well, but for now it was all about enjoying this moment as Espinoza was doing, savoring that last glorious run. They received their victory garland and more celebrations ensued as Pharoah was back among the rest of his connections, met by Baffert and the Zayats.

Then American Pharoah, living legend, walked past us one more time, wearing his purple blanket that proclaimed him the Breeders’ Cup Classic champion.

We lingered a bit longer, and there was one more race to be run, but we had already had so many wonderful memories.

As we went back to my friend’s car, there was one more bit of luck in store for me to cap off an amazing day. There was still a vendor on the Hill with Breeders’ Cup merchandise and he had the hat that said “American Pharoah” and “Breeders’ Cup 2015 Keeneland” on it, the hat which had been sold out directly at the track. I have a huge horse hat collection, and really wanted to add this one since it had Keeneland’s first Breeders’ Cup embroidered on it, as well as recognition of the site of Pharoah’s last race. The vendor had just been packing up too, so we caught him just in time.

That concluded an incredible Breeders’ Cup day and enough memories to last a lifetime. What an amazing horse we got to see go out at the top of his game, and Keeneland did a wonderful job hosting their first Cup.