I have been playing the races for 40 years, and for the very first time I was in attendance at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby. Here are the good, bad, and ugly of my experience under the Twin Spires.
Watching Justify confirm all of the hype of horseplayers who have been touting him since he won his Maiden debut at Santa Anita in February.
Despite having just three lifetime races, never shipping from his Santa Anita stall to race, and having never taken dirt in his face, Justify broke well, pressed an extremely fast early pace, kicked clear around the far turn and maintained a safe margin over Good Magic. So much for the Apollo curse of not being able to win the Derby without a start as a 2-year-old.
Monomoy Girl was impressive overcoming post 14 to win the Oaks on Friday. Like Justify, she was sent from the gate by jockey Florent Geroux, established a good pressing position, and after fighting off Wonder Gadot in mid-stretch she was pulling away late to win handily.
The handle for the Churchill Downs card on Saturday was over $223 million, the first time a North American track has handled over $200 million on one race card.
The use of a drone down the backstretch enabled fans at the track and watching on all satellite feeds a clear and excellent view of the action. The use of the technology was a vast improvement for players who often lost track of the horses when they went behind the temporary tents.
The buzz. From the time I stepped on the plane heading to Louisville the main topic was horse racing. “Who do you like in the Derby” was a form of saying hello. Women carrying hat boxes, men in bow ties, and a genuine enthusiasm in the anticipation of the event were refreshing to someone who loves the sport.
The noise. I don’t know which track was the first to implement the policy of piping in loud music through the grandstand between races, but Churchill Downs took it to a new level on Oaks and Derby days. From 90 minutes before first post (approximately 9 a.m. eastern) until after the final race (nearly 8 p.m. on Derby Day), music was blaring off the walls of the grandstand with the only break coming as horses were loaded in the gate until the race was official. It gave me a headache and there was no place to hide if you wanted to watch races live instead of on TV in the overcrowded grandstand.
Trying to watch a race from another track like Santa Anita was nearly impossible. I guess it doesn’t matter if owners have interests in horses racing out of state or if players want to make a wager on the circuits they regularly play.
The lack of the industry working together reared its head again. TVG was forced to broadcast from Keeneland (where there is no current live racing) when their personnel were refused media credentials to cover the Oaks, Derby, and every other card at Churchill Downs. The policy hurts the horseplayers most of all.
XBTV was not allowed to provide on-track coverage either since they are aligned with the Xpress Bet Advance Deposit Wagering company. XBTV, which has created a valuable handicapping tool for horseplayers by taping and analyzing workouts, was forced to broadcast from Santa Anita.
Daily Racing Form is another company at an impasse with Churchill Downs and were not allowed to sell their publication on the track grounds.
The handle shows horseplayers are resilient, but isn’t it possible the handle would grow even more if the industry would work together?
Fashion is an important part of the Derby experience but speaking from experience and as a word to the wise: Not all bodies can wear all outfits as efficiently as others.
Churchill Downs changed the entrance and exit policies for this year, with just two exits being used from the grandstand (one by the paddock and the other from the Clubhouse). The result was absolute gridlock trying to get out of the facility in one piece.
New parking policies required a long walk to get to a bridge leading to the paddock admission gates, which is OK when the weather is acceptable. Mix in over three inches of rain on Derby day, and there were a lot of waterlogged and unhappy patrons trying to get out Saturday evening.
Will I ever go back to Churchill Downs for a major event like the Derby or even the Breeders Cup (being held at Churchill this fall)? Before I say “absolutely not,” I have to consider one question: What if I owned a horse good enough to have a legit chance to win the Derby?
It was reported Sunday morning that Justify came out of his race well and is expected to wheel right back in the Preakness. Of the other 19 horses in the Derby, only D. Wayne Lukas’ sixth place finisher Bravazzo is definite to come back for more in the Preakness. Lukas also has Sporting Chance pointed to the Preakness, and Quip from the Rodolphe Brisset stable skipped the Derby with the Preakness in mind. A small field seems probable and the Derby win by Justify is part of the reason.
Play of the Week: Santa Anita, Thursday, Race 7 – Beantown Boys (post 7). Gelding has been in good form sprinting of late, but he was a better router early in his career. The Genaro Vallejo barn has been unconscious with horses making their first start off a claim. The jump in class is a positive sign, too.