I always wanted a horse. I grew up watching Flicka and Black Stallion, and was obsessed with Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken (anyone else remember that movie?). I read “Misty of Chincoteague” and my family went camping on Assateague Island when I was nine. Horse racing is the one sport I actually enjoy watching, and my dad and I used to bet pennies on the Kentucky Derby in our living room. Of course I chose based on name and appearance, while my brothers were better at actual stats.
Visiting Churchill Downs was a bucket list item for me, and I felt giddy entering the big white gates for Twilight Racing as the bugler played his call to post. I ate in the Churchill Downs restaurant, sipped mint juleps, learned how to bet (didn’t win any money), and spent a lot of time hanging out in the lower level trying to get as close to the horses as possible. They’re so pretty! Lean, muscular powerhouses that burst gracefully past in a whirl of sleek manes and colored jockey coats.
The sun set in pinks and violets and the air was slightly sticky as the crowd sang ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ and called it a night. Most of these people had probably been to the track dozens of times, and it was just a casual Thursday night, but they sang with nostalgia and pride, no one turning to leave until the last note was done. It was perfect.
Things got even better the next morning on the Barn & Backside Tour at the Kentucky Derby Museum. (Tip: Wake up extra early and grab a coffee at Wagner’s Pharmacy, where trainers hang out to talk shop and down a greasy breakfast). The early morning tour takes you back to the 1,400 stalls for a peek at training. Famous trainers and jockeys roam the stalls and ride around the track, stopping to answer questions. It was thrilling to know one of these horses could win next year’s Kentucky Derby, and interesting to see the behind the scenes life of the horses. By 8am they had already been fed, exercised, and bathed, and one trainer told me he wakes up at 3am every morning.
Back in the museum, the exhibits were focused on American Pharoah and past Triple Crown Winners. There are some really fantastic interactive exhibits, including a ‘Time Machine’ where visitors can watch races dating back to 1918. The best exhibit by far is The Greatest Race, a powerful 360-degree movie bringing Derby day alive. It begins quietly in the stalls before sunrise, building anticipation throughout and showing the routines of everyone involved, from the jockeys warming up to the announcer practicing pronunciations to the fans arriving to the infield and the owners sweeping in in an array of hats and cameras, and culminating in speed, tension, and excitement as the ‘Wall of Sound’ hits when the horses round the bend to face the stands and the winner pulls ahead, the crowd going wild. When the movie ended, the packed theater sat in awed silence for a few moments. “That was worth the admission price alone,” I heard one man say. He was right.