Derby 135 casts fresh memories

Updated: May 5, 2009, 6:44 PM ET
By Claire Novak | Special to ESPN.com

Here came our predecessors: the power-suited professionals of the 1980s and '90s, the long-haired flower children of the '60s and '70s, the fedora-wearing, Bel Air-driving, cocktails-at-happy-hour couples of the '50s. Here also came the racing generations, those uniformed attendees of the 1940s, the Depression-fighting classes of the '30s, the flappers and their collegiate admirers of the roaring '20s. And came the founding fathers, blazing a trail, to whom this place was new and fresh and exciting in 1910 and 1900 and all the way back to 1874, when the story began at Churchill Downs, on the first Saturday in May.

Julie Wathen
AP Photo/Patti LongmireA Kentucky Derby reveler wears a fancy hat.
Thus came we here today, trodding history's footprints to make our own, the grandstand overflowing, the infield a teeming sea of humanity, the press box buzzing with commentary and news tips and light banter. Came we in our best clothes, our bow ties and string ties and long ties and dresses and high heels and hats, of course hats. Thus we became the masses; thousands pressing forward for a look at greatness. And unexpected, in a plucky long shot, found it.

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First, the national anthem. This the silencing of 153,563 people, the standing to attention of America's former and present military, ringing tones of a vocalist framed by a winner's circle of roses. Land of the free, home of the brave. And a cheer at conclusion, the mighty roar rising and expanding from the throats of the throng to spill out the grandstand, past the confines, to the ears of an officer on Central Avenue, who waits for the exiting traffic to begin.

Second, the walk over. This the march of horses tested yet unproven, led by a red-coated outrider, the energy rising, the crowd at attention. The owners have rolled up the legs of their seersucker and Armani suits and their women have brought rubber boots or flat heels and many wear baseball caps with the names of their runners stitched on the top and they all smile and wave to their friends in the grandstand who call out the names of the 3-year-old thoroughbreds, "Musket Man!" and "Friesan Fire!" The trainers stride on along, focused, unsmiling, and chew at the edges of their lips, and never let their gaze leave their charges. Their transfer of responsibility has not yet come.

Third, the paddock. This a space to be filled with the privileged; exclusive on this day, not so much any other. Here, runners circle, muscles rippling, all eyes follow. Here, too, the riders confer with trainers -- whips tucked under slender arms, arms crossed over narrow chests, chests now rising, falling, with breaths of anticipation. This where trainers' jobs are over, and, when the leg up is given, where power goes out of their hands. Into the hands of little men, who grasp the reins and adjust the stirrups and ride out onto that great Kentucky oval.

Fourth, the post parade. This the singing of "My Old Kentucky Home," and the chills running down to the depths of the soul, and the walking of the horses from tunnel to clubhouse turn and back again before the stands. The one is pacing with ears pinned; the two is unruffled with a leisurely stride; the three is proud with an arched neck; the five is jogging with an edgy eye; the six is strolling with an easy walk; the seven is rearing with a circle around the pony; the eight is quiet with deceiving calm; the nine is jogging with an impatient step; the 10 is walking with a slow, slow pace; the 11 is less ruffled than its follower, the 12; the 13 is back in the barn, was a scratch; the 14's rider stares straight ahead; the 15 is eyeing the crowd; the 17 is trotting; the 18 and 19 have ears pricked; the 20 brings up the rear, easy. They break off into canters and head out around the turn and everyone is standing now, pushing forward.

Fifth, the gate. This the steel contraption, monstrous in its entirety, where races are won and lost for position, for timing. It is far, far up the track, and you stand and peer in between the white rails, and you hold your breath and know it's coming, here it is, the break, the roar, they're off.

Churchill Downs
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelA spectator reacts during Derby Day at Churchill Downs.
Sixth, the race. This what we've all been waiting for, the great classic. Nine, 10, 16, one, they pass us. Riders angling in toward the rail. Colors flashing by the stands. Roll of thunder. Cheers of bystanders. Eight horse bringing up the rear, nineteenth at the quarter pole, nineteenth at the half pole, nineteenth at the three-quarters pole. And then the second turn. Runner on the lead, flagging, tires. Horse starts to pick them off. Weaves on through. And down the stretch they come.

Seventh, the finish. This an event to watch from the wire, craning for view, horse drawing off on the lead alone, first seen only from the front, unrecognizable. Who is it? Then he passes, that eight horse from the first time rear, the trailer now before us, in full stride, skimming along the rail and opening by four, by five, by six and three-quarter lengths the winner, largest margin since Assault took the running in 1946. Second-longest shot to ever win it, at odds of 50-1.

Eighth, the aftermath. This chaos choreographed: valets taking saddles; jockeys finding trainers; winners crying, hugging; losers shrugging, silent; those who missed predicting it -- nearly everyone -- wondering what just happened. And the order flashing across the tote board; eight, 16, two, seven. And the payoff following the order, $103.20. And the staggering realization that a horse we never figured, Mine That Bird, has just won the Kentucky Derby.

Ninth, the winner's circle. This the dream of owners everywhere, the goal of trainers, the hope of jockeys. A share of the purse worth $2,177,200. Hands on a gleaming golden trophy. The horse is blowing, led by the outrider, and the mud is splattering up from his hooves, and here come the goosebumps as he is trotted down past the people proudly, eyeballing the crowd, unaware of what he just has done. And Calvin Borel is crying and those roses, the blessed roses, are being swept across his lap, and the picture goes down into history and the trophy is hoisted to the sky and we all stand beneath the cloudy skies and gaze with dropping jaws, yet somehow can't begrudge them anything.

Tenth, the press conference. This a smallish room, four chairs, four mics, a table. Crowded, we file in. Reporters consider their questions. The connections attempt to answer them.

The trainer, Bennie Woolley Jr.: "To be honest, I didn't have any real feeling that I could win the Derby. We just wanted to be competitive."

The owner, Leonard Blach: "It made my heart sink a little when he came by there and he was last, but I was really glad to see him that far in front when he came around the second time."

The other owner, Mark Allen: "When he got that rail, I knew we would be all right."

The jockey, Calvin Borel: "You can't take nothing away from the little horse. He bellied down and run the last quarter of a mile just like a good horse should."

Churchill Downs
AP Photo/Morry GashA worker at Churchill Downs puts up the name of the newest Kentucky Derby champion.
Eleventh, the research. This a harried process, Google and charts, facts spewed out by communications staffers, knowledge built up over years in the industry. The breeders two Kentucky folks, an Illinois man, and a native of Canada. The owners from Roswell, N.M. The trainer a former rodeo rider and quarter horse trainer. The jockey the winner of Friday's Kentucky Oaks and the 2007 Kentucky Derby. The horse, ninth gelding to win the Kentucky Derby and a Sovereign Award winner as Canada's top 2-year-old.

Twelfth, the writing. This the culmination of events, the end to our watching and waiting, the release of the thoughts we've been holding, the reaction to what we've just seen.

Finally, the memories. These of weeks of preparation. The horse grazing out beside the barn. The trainer speaking with optimism of hitting the board, maybe. The exercise rider coming reluctantly for his first encounter with the media. The gallops over a smooth dirt track. The mist of an early morning. A horse lost among the throng of great runners, yet bred for greatness, son of Birdstone, whose sire was Grindstone, 1996 Kentucky Derby winner.

Then it is over. The stands all are clear, and the stragglers have wandered from the gates, which are locked, and the cleanup crews are finishing their collections of what has been left by the masses. And wandering out into the stillness of a crisp, cool night, comes the thought of the little more than two minutes we will remember for decades, through the ebb and flow of life and its changes. And somewhere on the backside, the one horse that delivered those memories -- this year's Derby winner -- stands in a stall of deep, golden straw. And he sleeps.

Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse Magazine, The Albany Times Union, and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.