Dawn At The Downs

A view of morning practice from millionaires row. (Anne Marshall/Only A Game)
A view of morning practice from millionaires row. (Anne Marshall/Only A Game)

For Derby fans, the early bird gets some peace.

Saturday at Churchill Downs, Gemologist, Bodemeister and Dullahan are among the favorites that will peel out of the starting gates in the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby. Those magical two minutes lure a couple hundred-thousand spectators each year. And while many delight in the parties and the frantic mile-and-a-quarter-long race, some fans enjoy the Derby's quieter side in the week leading up to the first jewel in horse racing's Triple Crown.

As about a dozen horses coasted through a morning jog, Carl Diamond, a sleepy-eyed 8-year-old in shorts and red sneakers, stood on a bright green aluminum chair to catch a glimpse of Churchill Downs’ famed dirt track. Carl’s mother, Susan, held his younger sister as all three took in a pre-Derby morning workout.

Carl’s head swiveled left. His eyes caught the orange glow of sunrise before following a tight percussive pack of three thoroughbreds and their crouched riders. The horses wore red silks, not the yellow indicating Derby contenders.

Carl: “How did they not make it to the Derby?”
Susan: “Maybe they did.”
Carl: “But the ones with yellow are supposed to.”
Susan: “Oh, they didn’t have yellow. There’s I guess probably 10-or 12 races on Derby day so lots of horses racing...”

This early morning trek to Churchill Downs has become a family tradition. Susan and her husband will usually dress up and head to Kentucky Oaks, the day before Derby when fillies race. But the kids? They stay home. It’s more of an adult scene. This has a totally different feel.

"So, much more relaxed," Diamond explained. "We usually get donuts on the way out and go to school late. Huh, Carl?"

He nods. Like many tracks around the country, Churchill Downs offers a peek at workouts. And it’s free to attend in the days leading up to Derby, before the national spotlight shines on frilly hats, the twin spires, and millionaires' row.

Rather than mint juleps, Mary Eckler chose a picnic breakfast of muffins, fruit and juice. "We’re kind of taking it easy and just enjoying some things that we brought instead of going upstairs to the big spread,” she said.

Churchill Downs hosts a generous buffet breakfast for about 30 bucks, but Eckler and her three friends lounge with a Tupperware bowl full of strawberries. All four women live in Louisville. So come the first week in May they juggle out-of-town visitors with parades and parties. Eckler said, at least for a few hours, it’s nice to watch trainers and horses run in circles.

“You know it’s kind of like when you have a party and everything’s ready, so you just sit back and enjoy one another before the guests come.”

Eckler and her friends like to come to the track during Derby week, but they'd like to keep this event a secret, "Don't put this on the air, OK?” Eckler joked.


Of course, not everyone arrived looking for a breather. Under a floppy green hat, binoculars nearby, Duanice Keslar from Pennsylvania was searching for talent. A fan with encyclopedic knowledge of horse racing, she knows every top contender’s owner, bloodline and racing stats. Keslar says a lot of this comes from hanging out, watching horses get schooled in walking the paddock or cataloging each elegant stride.

“Oh, I think you can get a better look at the horses in the morning as they’re galloping around. Because in the race you just see the horse come out, you may see them warm up where they go around toward the back of the track and then you see them zoom by at the race so you don’t get to see the horses as well. I mean we do watch the races, too.”

But for Bailey Harrod, whose braces-lined smile beamed along the track’s green railing, the intimacy of practice trumps race day, an event shared by millions of TV viewers. The 11-year-old loves horses. She even has one at home.

"I like that one. It reminds me of my horse," Harrod said. "And the red one too because she’s kind of stubborn, puts her head to the side. I see that in him."

Wearing riding boots and jeans, she leaned into the track whenever a distant four-legged figure came near, camera in hand, trying to capture the weekend’s champions.

Mark McKune stood a few feet away. For the last few years, he’s taken his 3-year-old grandson, Landon, to morning practice. The blond toddler buried himself into his grandpa’s shoulder as Mark recalled a chance encounter.

“True story. Last year we were here and the horse that won the Oaks came over to the rail. We had him sitting on the rail he got to pet it on its nose. And we said, 'We got to bet that horse tomorrow.' We didn’t bet it. And it won. So, seriously, you never know."

Maybe Landon touched the Derby winner on that morning, proving that when it comes to the most exciting two minutes in sports, great moments can come from simply taking some time.

This segment aired on May 5, 2012. The audio for this segment is not available.



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