Written by Alden Caldwell
More than 294,200 fans made their way to Churchill Downs over the weekend to revel in the pinnacle of Thoroughbred racing for the 141st Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby. Mint Juleps, lavish hats, and quirky suits were picturesque under blue skies and the twin spires as a record breaking crowd watched the “Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.”
This year was my third trip to the Derby and second time working the Oaks and Derby as media for NBC. I was given the opportunity to work for NBC upon my graduation from high school and I gladly accepted; since then I have worked countless races across the country. My knowledge of the horse racing industry is why I became a “camera spotter” for the network. This job entails following an assigned trainer or owner to the location they will watch the race from and directing a camera man to that person to get a “reaction shot” during and after the race. Being on the media team gives me the unique opportunity to have what I would consider the true “Derby experience.” With an all-access pass, I can go many of the places others cannot and have the special amenities given to those who own, train, or raised an Oaks or Derby horse.
Historically, Churchill Downs has been one of the most opulent scenes in American culture, and this year was no exception. Kentucky Oaks day shattered the previous record attendance, set in 2010, with nearly 124,000 attendees. The Oaks is for the top three year old female Thoroughbreds in the country. This pre-Derby day, is all about the human ladies as well. From the Garland of Lilies given to the equine victor, to the “Oaks Lily” beverages sold in keepsake glasses, Churchill is adorned in pink. Everyone in attendance, even the men, are expected to be wearing some shade of pink.
Derby day was one for the books. With another record breaking crowd, the Mint Juleps were flowing and millions were spent at the betting window. This was a hectic day at the NBC compound, with two late scratches and horses being pulled out of the race due to injury, many of pre-taped b-roll had to be reformatted to the developing stories. The expert team was able to pull it off before the Derby went to air.
Finally it was race time. I was assigned to follow the 10 horse, Firing Line and his connections. All of the horses entered the paddock to be saddled for the race and the crowd seemed to amass around the favorites, chanting their names and snapping pictures. Many of the horses were unnerved by the volume of the crowd and got so wound up, they burnt all of their energy for the race by stressing out. The favorites, American Pharaoh and Dortmund, wore special earplugs to dampen the noise, and keep them calm.
“My Old Kentucky Home” played as the horses walked under the tunnel and onto the track. I got chills as the song ended and the crowd began cheering, as well as a wave of adrenaline. My camera man was on our target, the trainer and family of Firing Line and I had the magnificent “owners’ box” view on the edge of the track. The horses entered the starting gate and in two minutes years of work all came to fruition.
American Pharoah proved he was a champion by beating the best field of horses in over a decade. He earned the $1.24 million, and the iconic garland of roses, giving his owners their first Derby victory, after having their last three Derby horses run second best. Firing Line ran an incredible race, but tired toward the finish. His second place effort still earned him $400,000.
I then walked over the track to the winner’s circle to watch the crowning of American Pharoah and the trophy presentation. I’ve never seen a group of people so happy and so passionate about their horse and his accomplishment.
Just like that it was all over, the races that is. Spectators celebrated long into the wee hours of the morning and caught early flights home. The grooms tended to their tired athletes, giving them the love they rightly deserve for surviving the stimulating day. And the trainers and jockeys handled the onslaught of questions in press conferences.
This year’s Oaks and Derby were nothing short of amazing. I have been to many races around the country and nothing compares to Churchill Downs on Derby weekend. It is something I would encourage anyone and everyone to go to, even if you have no interest in horse racing. Culturally it is unlike anything one could experience on the West Coast. It is the Super Bowl of horse racing and is truly the most fun you can have in 48 hours.