Christmas—I mean Derby day (it always feels like Christmas, with the level of anticipation it evokes!)—this year found me watching from the backside for the first time ever. It’s hard to top getting to be there with a media credential, which I was fortunate enough to do last year thanks to my BloodHorse internship, but from the backside is also is a privileged way to witness a Derby, and further added to my excitement about the day.
It was a day of alternating sun and rain, and a bit on the chilly side, but that didn’t deter my enthusiasm or that of the people around me. Luckily, too, getting a seat in bleachers with a view of the track was never difficult throughout the day, as people came and went, and were friendlier than I have sometimes encountered on the grandstand side.
While there wasn’t a view of the finish line, I did like getting to see the horses walk from the barns to the track, break out of the chute when races started there, and warm up right in front of my vantage point.
I felt lucky indeed to be in that spot. When the Derby horses came through near day’s end, I took up a spot hoping to see as many as possible walk to the track.Most did come through near the chute but I got to see Girvin, Thunder Snow, Fast and Accurate and McCracken. To be that close to them, close enough to touch, felt like a privilege too.
Classic Empire carried my hopes for victory with him. I’d somewhat rooted for him before Derby week, but something about seeing him up close that Tuesday morning before the Derby when he appeared on the track won me over thoroughly. I know there were questions about how he was coming into it after training a bit erratically leading up to the Derby and just getting back on track when winning his last Derby prep, but the element that draws me to this sport most is feeling that connection to the horse, for whatever reason it occurs. Sometimes that connection comes down to sentiment, to a moment I feel drawn to a horse, and that is what had happened during even just the fleeting time I saw Classic Empire for the first time in the flesh that morning at Churchill. That was my only glimpse of him that week too—I didn’t get to see him walk by for the Derby, or even know where he had finished until I left the track.
I also couldn’t see Thunder Snow’s inexplicable bucking exhibition when he left the gate—definitely one of the most unusual things I’ve heard of happening in the Derby though!
What I did see was the Derby field run by us the first time after they rounded the second turn and their hoofbeats were so loud away from the roar of the crowd, so loud on the muddy track that Churchill had done its best to seal, the loud thundering noise only a track in that condition can produce…. a noise that thunders through your mind and echoes in the beat of your heart, keeping time with the staccato rush of a field of 19 galloping horses…. Moments like those are when the thrill of racing transmits itself to me most intensely.
What I saw next was after the race was over, which felt like an interminable wait for the field to reach us so we could try to catch a glimpse of the winner as it had been impossible to tell who captured the roses from where we were. And what we saw was a horse who had the race so well in hand he was still far ahead when he reached us, having additionally covered about half of the race’s distance by that time.
I had to admit I was a bit disappointed to find the winner wasn’t Classic Empire, but after a bit of a tough trip and a slight eye injury, it wasn’t to be.
It was absolutely Always Dreaming’s day, and while he wasn’t my pick, there is no denying how privileged I felt to see the newest Derby winner a mere moment after the race, gathered by the outrider to escort him to the winner’s circle, and to see jockey Johnny Velazquez’ jubilation at his second Derby victory. It is well-deserved, and I was happy for him. He is a great ambassador for the sport and an excellent mentor for upcoming jockeys besides.
Moments like those are what racing should be all about. It’s always great to witness when they occur, and how apt indeed the winner’s name is Always Dreaming. Dreams are what propelled me into this industry, as they have for so many, in whatever form that involvement takes, and a grand dream is what the son of Bodemeister provided his many connections that day. He walked off into the sun that was visible through the clouds once more to receive his blanket of roses, and I lingered a bit longer to watch a few more Derby horses parade by on their way back to the barns.
Even only being able to identify a few of them, it once more felt like a privilege to be that close to them all. This year represented another Derby first for me, getting to be that close to the horses at time. While I didn’t have a view of the finish like last year, it was actually a better vantage point prior to the race, as we had gathered in the traditional winners’ circle to watch the walkover but ended up barely able to see the contenders for all the people that accompanied them.
I walked out of Churchill at a safe distance behind J Boys Echo, on his way back to the Romans barn, and paused once to watch a pony who turned to meet my gaze as he was bathed. He still had flowers in his mane and tail, his Derby finery, and as he turned it almost seemed like a silent farewell as the chapter closed on one more Derby day. Cold and bursts of rain aside, and even with a different winner than the one I’d hoped for, it had been a good day.
Note: These photos are all phone quality (didn’t bring my usual camera)