By Theoden Janes
Arizona Daily Wildcat
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As far as I was concerned, Kandaly was a foreign country. I thought a trifecta was what a three-pointer in basketball was sometimes called. And if you had asked me what the infield grass was, I would have told you it was that patch on a baseball diamond.
That was until I came to Churchill Downs, which coincidentally was also the first time in my life that I had been exposed to thoroughbred racing.
I'll keep things easy and refer to it by its more common name — horse racing.
First of all, let me tell you how I got here in the first place. A couple of months ago, I was one of 50 students nationwide selected to participate in the Kentucky Derby Collegiate Sports Journalism Seminar.
I was excited about the opportunity, but to tell you the truth, I was initially very skeptical. I mean, horse racing? I’ve covered basketball and football — you know, real sports.
However, I tried my best to keep an open mind, even flipping to a Sports Illustrated article about the early favorite in Saturday’s Derby, Holy Bull, after boarding my flight in Phoenix last Wednesday.
It was so good that I fell asleep.
Actually, the writing was fine, I just didn’t understand it. Moreover, I didn’t care about it.
My vistit was relatively uneventful until Friday. In the morning, I took a bus to the track, which was a beautiful facility. That night, I saw a Louisville Redbirds (the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate) game from the luxury room at Cardinals Stadium. The day’s highlight, however, was talking with Dick Schaap, a broadcaster for ABC and ESPN.
During our talk, Schaap informed me: "Boxing and horse racing are the only two sports that capture the full range of human emotions. But the intent of boxing — the senselessness of it, bothers me, so I would have to say horse racing is the purest of all sports.”
I didn't realize that he was right until later in the weekend. I watched legendary jockey Pat Day win several races in one day. I met D. Wayne Lukas, the trainer of Derby horse Tabasco Cat, who trampled and nearly killed Lukas’ son last year.
I watched Holy Bull trot onto the track and heard somebody yell to Lukas, “Hey D. Wayne, there’s the horse to beat,” to which the 58-year-old trainer replied sarcastically, “Ooooo! Can’t you see me shaking in my shoes?”
I learned that the Derby is attended by nearly 160,000 people every year and more than 1,800 members of the media, and that there are not, and have never been, official news conferences like the ones that every other major sports event has. That’s right, reporters wander among the stables and find their own stories, rather than all of them getting the exact same quotes to work with.
It was just so different, so — I don’t know — natural. I mean, it was an incredible feeling to walk among the stables of Churchill Downs’ backside at 6:30 a.m. It was an incredible feeling scrambling to press yourself against a wall because the horn had sounded indicating that a horse is loose and you don’t want to get trampled.
It was an incredible feeling to shake hands with 76-year-old Charlie Whittingham, the legendary trainer of five Kentucky Derby horses, two of which were winners (Ferdinand in ’86 and Sunday Silence in ’89). And it was an incredible feeling to bet a $2 exacta (picking the 1-2 finishers in a race), feel your heart pound as you watch your two horses come in and then going to the track window to collect your $24.20 in winnings.
Yes, my heart actually pounded. It well might have been because I had bet money on the race, but even when I didn’t wager, I enjoyed the event. On every stretch drive, the crowd (about 19,000 on Saturday) would become electrified.
I talked to Bill Luster, the chief photographer for the Louisville Courier-Journal, and he told me that one of the most thrilling moments in sports is the stretch drive of the Kentucky Derby.
Now I don’t know if this is true, because I have probably seen only one or two Derbys, and I watched those on television. They were hardly memorable.
But I will always remember that I stood six feet from Kandaly (if that horse wins, I’ll always brag about it, too). I will always remember betting a $2 trifecta, which requires you to pick the 1-2-3 finishers in a race. I will always remember standing on the infield grass, where tens of thousands will watch the Derby.
Sunday, I again turned to the article featuring Holy Bull.
This time, I didn’t fall asleep. Read Next Article