Churchill Downs marked the closing day of their spring meet with the Stephen Foster Stakes and a handful of other stakes races, attracting the likes of Letruska and Maxfield.

The forecast originally called for thunderstorms but the temperatures soared up to the 90-degree range and the sun was out in force all day. The buckets of water poured over many of the horses post-race looked extra refreshing as my seat was not under a roof, but I still enjoyed the day immensely. It is wonderful to get back to race attendance and not miss all the big days. This could sound trivial to some in light of a pandemic, but when it is part of the fabric of who you are, it matters to have some normality to the rhythm of your days. I also enjoyed seeing two of Gun Runner’s progeny race, as not being able to go to sales last year meant I did not get to see any of the horses he sired. I do like to get a look at progeny of horses that were favorites on the track. so I appreciated that I had the chance during Churchill’s card.

I started my day in Louisville with a quick stop at Wagner’s, as I had arrived a few hours before the races began before moving on to the Derby Museum. In a typical, non-pandemic year, I attend the Derby and then don’t come back to Churchill until Stephen Foster day. But in 2019, if memory serves, I went to the Derby and no other race days at Churchill for that year’s spring meet. The gist of that is, I don’t know how soon after the Derby the horse model in the Derby Museum is repainted to look like the newest Derby winner, but when I was there on that day in late June, it was still painted like Authentic. The film about the Derby, which usually highlights the most recent Derby winner also, still most prominently featured Authentic’s victory. Later, at the track, I saw Medina Spirit’s name above the paddock and around the wall in the line with all the other Derby winners but it was not lost on me that they had not yet done anything to commemorate what at this time still stands as the official result that would be more time-consuming to do over if necessary, like updating the Derby Museum film or painting the horse there.

It did make me wonder how they showcased the 2019 Derby result in the film; naturally, the race call is very much of the moment but since that result did not stand, I wondered if they put text along the bottom of the screen to note Maximum Security was not the official victor or if they just played it as it was called during the running with no comment. I’ll be curious to see how they show that film if Medina Spirit is at some point disqualified.

Another point I wondered about during the showing of the film, as I listened to race calls echo through the years of a multitude of past Derbys was when it became possible to have race callers, as far as when sound systems that could carry sound to large groups of people were invented, and if prior to that attendees had to just try to see for themselves how the races unfolded. They must have had to.

I did a little research into that and figure one can only hypothesize how early race days were, and that the most likely conclusion is anyone in attendance just had to follow the action for themselves as best they could. But I did discover a little about sound systems:

“Up until the late 19th century, all forms of public address were done using architectural acoustics – there was no viable alternative to improve speech comprehension. However, the first step towards completely changing how people perceived sound came in 1875, when British-American inventor and music professor David Edward Hughes invented the carbon microphone…. The carbon microphone contained two metal boxes and worked by sound waves striking its diaphragm, causing the carbon granules contained inside to vibrate… Hughes coined the term ‘microphone’ to describe his invention, as he saw it as the audio equivalent of the microscope. Thus, the first component of a modern-day PA system was born.

A couple of decades later, the world’s first experimental moving coil loudspeaker was invented by British physicist Oliver Lodge. Known as the ‘bellowing telephone,’ this invention contained the same basic features as today’s loudspeakers – a diaphragm vibrated by a voice coil, the sound of which was then amplified by a flared horn.”

These inventions and an electrical component made it possible for people to address large numbers of other people by the early 1900s, and as a friend discovered, Churchill Downs had their first track announcer by 1940, Gene Schmidt, which means almost every Triple Crown winner has had the first step of that journey commemorated with a race call.

Before leaving the Museum, I took a little more time to see some parts of the exhibit about female jockeys I had missed last year. There were several interviews showing about aspects of their careers and two interesting points made I had never considered. One was when a jockey went to a trainer who was not giving her rides on his mounts, and she told him she would not have a strength disadvantage competing against male jockeys because she could eat substantial meals and still make weight, and not have to spend hours in the sweat box. Two others, including Rosie Napravnik, mentioned that when they had opportunities to step up and ride in more prestigious races or even just more renowned tracks that routinely had top jockeys ride there, it was a necessary step to advance their own skills by learning from the better jockeys and also learning in the moment how to become better. One of the jockeys mentioned that it was much more competitive than where she had been riding and the jockeys rode in tight quarters. That was something to mull over, and wonder if there were many more top female jockeys that may have been great at what they did but were not given enough opportunity to hone their craft to make the transition from good to great. Still, none of them complained about bias or missed opportunities. I gathered like any jockey of any gender they grabbed the chances they could to advance when they presented themselves and felt the track life was a calling and were glad to be part of it even on hard days.

Before leaving the Museum, I paused to see foal registrations for Black Toney and Regret, fascinating to one who loves pedigrees and the history of horses who left their marks on the annals of the Turf. That was where, after the breedings and successful foalings, what they may become all began. With the names they would turn out to have echo through the years.

Slight digression, so on to the races!

It was good to get back to the track. (This sentiment was echoed on the Churchill program for the spring meet, as the cover said, “The Track Is Back!”) I’ve been careful even after vaccination about resuming activities around large groups of people, and any of those I have been part of involved being at racing, so it still feels amazing to get to do this again. I never took it for granted before, but definitely time away from even a favorite activity can give it extra resonance when resumed.

Early on in the day, I saw Pat Day near the paddock, wearing a suit. The synchronicity of that struck me as just a short distance away was the statue of him and I had not seen him attending a race day there before.

I witnessed Gunite, the first starter for his sire Gun Runner, break his maiden in his third start. Gun Runner. Gun Runner’s progeny clearly impressed at the sales with an average sales price of $267,750, which made him the leading-first crop sire at two major sales, and have continued to live to up to that impression so far, as he is currently the leading freshman sire by earnings.

The stakes races began with the Fleur de Lis, with Letruska making a start three weeks after her Odgen Phipps victory at Belmont Park. On-site handicappers discussed her chances of continuing her winning ways in that quick turnaround, expressing doubt as she was conceding weight to each of her opponents in the Fleur de Lis, and wondering if it had been too soon since her last race, opining that the “Win and You’re In” status of the race was too compelling to her connections to pass up. My thought was she clearly had been the best on the day in the Odgen Phipps, and probably on a lot of other days. Not being that familiar with the mare or her connections, it was mere speculation on my part, but at the same time seeing that Letruska seems like a star ascending steadily in the distaff ranks, I’d have to surmise her connections were following a path the horse indicated she was able to take and wouldn’t run her back in three weeks if she wasn’t ready. At the wire, Letruska further burnished her status as she was 5 3/4 lengths ahead of the rest of the field. In the winners’ circle, trainer Fausto Guiterrez indicated she may at some point run against colts and thoughts of being in the running for Horse of the Year were not far behind.

A few races later, in the War Chant Stakes, the 3-year-old colt Next by Not This Time, gave me an impression of a little rocket as he surged to victory.

The race day for me concluded with the Stephen Foster, though there was one race to go on the card afterwards. Maxfield further proved his class as he won by 3 1/4 lengths. I had heard of him of course, but had not realized until this race what a near-perfect record he has, victorious in all but one start.

At some point during the race day, I heard a patron near me comment to the people he was attending with about which Kentucky track would race next and speculate that it would be Keeneland “in a week or so.” That stuck in my mind a bit as I know the sequence of Kentucky tracks and their race meets pretty well and it was not Keeneland’s turn, and a while after I wondered if he had been thinking of last year when they did have a July meet. Fortunately, so far the race calendar has been in its normal order and attendance possible too.

Speaking of Keeneland, this year’s October meet will mark the track’s 85th anniversary and they mentioned that soon they will announce protocols for spectators. With several tracks allowing attendance at full capacity, time will tell if they will follow suit. If not, I’ll certainly join the throngs trying to get tickets in advance as was required for the April meet. Looking forward to getting back there either way, likely to be the next time I get to the track.


“A History of the PA System.”

“Three Chimneys Lowers Majority of Stud Fees for 2021.”

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