As I get older, I realize that I really don't like driving in the dark. My depth perception is off and I prefer to see the scenery that I am passing.
Thankfully, the stretch of I-65 North, from Bowling Green to Louisville, Kentucky, was sparsely populated and relatively predictable, given the early hour. Having stopped last night to enjoy dinner with my brother, his wonderful wife and my nephew, I had less than two hours to travel this morning to reach my destination - the twin spires of Churchill Downs.
This is only my second Kentucky Derby - my first being 2015, when I was fortunate to cover my friend Victor Espinoza as he embarked on the possibility of back-to-back Derby wins, and an eventual Triple Crown victory aboard the amazing American Pharaoh. As I walked through the main plaza and the paddock, I remarked to a fellow photographer that they've done a lot of work. Churchill Downs looks much better than I remembered.
As I made my way down to the rail in the winners' circle, the track commentators voices boomed over the public address system, letting the fans who had come out early to watch training know who was on the track - a large video screen in the infield following the horses.
The track at Churchill Downs opens for training at 5:15am. It's dark and quiet and peaceful, and I love it at that time of the morning, but it makes for lousy photos. The track is typically closed each hour for training, so that it can be groomed for the next group, and the hour beginning at 7:15am is reserved for horses entered in the Oaks and Derby races this weekend. While it is not mandatory, most trainers decide to take their big horses to the track at that time in order to avoid the larger crowds that show up to train later.
Due to my stop for coffee before getting on the interstate, I arrived around 7:30am and missed most of the top contenders for the trophies being handed out this weekend. I did catch a few, but I won't comment on each as they are all beautiful, looked great in the morning light, and simply galloped around the track without incident. A lovely morning. (That their names are emblazoned on their saddle cloths is always appreciated....)
After leaving the training track, I found the credentials office and picked up my badge that will allow me to access the stable areas and to be trackside for the big races on Friday and Saturday. That task complete, I finally made my way to the barns.
In my brief time at Churchill Downs, I can say that the comment I hear most frequently from photographers and journalists is something along the lines of "they don't make it easy for us." This is referencing the path that we take to get from the clubhouse/grandstand to the barns. It's a less than glamorous journey through the parking lot to the closest stable gate, adjacent to Longview Road, should you happen to be familiar with the grounds. It's not convenient.
But once I reached the barns I was even more content as I watched the morning work being done. Horses going out to train, coming back in to get cleaned up, barn chores being done. The backside of a race track is an incredibly busy place, and since the barn area at Churchill Downs is massive, there is a lot going on.
The thing I like most about the barn area at this track is that horses and exercise riders have so many points of access to the track. The main gap, which is the largest and is closest to the service amenities provided for owners and trainers, is swamped with media, waiting for top horses to parade on and off the track. But if you walk deeper into the labyrinth of barns, you see access gaps about every furlong along the back stretch, allowing those who are stabled further out to gain access to the track without having to wade through traffic, or walk further than necessary.
I ambled around the backside for an hour or so, looking for the horses that interest me, and some friends that I know are in for races on Friday. I struck out on that front, but have since gotten the details of when and where to find everyone tomorrow. I'm staying with my niece and her husband, a mere 15 minutes from the track, so arriving on time in the morning should be easy. Especially since the coffee will be ready for me when I wake up.