The Dunkin' Donuts directly adjacent to my budget accommodations ensured that my Friday started out right - with an excellent cup of coffee. I was anticipating a photographers' meeting at Pimlico Race Course at 8:30am, so I made the 20 minute drive before 7am, to give me time to get my bearings and my credentials and parking pass.
I knew I was getting close to the track when I saw a big field filling up with cars, and then I was sitting in a long line of vehicles, slowly advancing toward the sable gate. When it was my turn, I told the security guards that I just needed to run up to the press box to get my credentials. Initially, I was told that I would have to go back out to the grass lot I had passed about a half a mile back. "If you had been here early...." It was 7am.
But that's how things go on the first day of a big race weekend. Security is tighter, parking is more challenging, and the place is buzzing with activity before sunrise. Without any expectation of the outcome, I pleaded my case - it would take me five minutes to run up to retrieve my credentials, which included my parking pass for the press annex lot. Fortunately, I was waved over to a spot where I parked my rental car, and then ran through the puddles to climb the steps to the racing office.
As I walked down a short hallway, I found myself on the mezzanine, overlooking the concourse. Down another, longer passageway, I reached the elevator that took me to the 4th level and the press box. I was thrilled that one of the first people I ran into was Joan Lawrence, with the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. I met Joan four years ago, on my very first outing with Sherman Racing Stables and then three-year old Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes champion, California Chrome, for the Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing.
Joan informed me that the credentials would be available in about 10 minutes as they were still locked up in an office, and she was waiting for the key. Wanting to keep my word to the security guards downstairs, I went back to my car to explain the delay. When I offered to move, I was waived off. "No need. We've got you."
I waited by my car for a few minutes, chatting with one of the men who was kind enough to help me, when the sound of multiple horses approaching was clearly indicated by hooves hitting pavement. I turned to see handlers walking with two and three Clydesdales in tow. Marching calmly around the parking lot to stretch their legs, with cars driving by and noise of all sorts, these noble giants never flinched or pulled on their lead ropes. A testament to training and preparation for the conditions under which they perform on a regular basis.
After snapping these photos, I ran back up to the press box, collected my credentials, and moved my car from its temporary position, turning onto Winner Avenue. The entrance to the press annex parking lot was just a short drive - not even a quarter mile. I was waived in by some very friendly workers, and found a spot on a grassy patch, avoiding the mud for the time being.
At 9:30am the photographers gathered in the paddock for instructions, distribution of photo vests and the assignment of positions on the track. The photography coordinator approached me before the meeting got started and quietly said he would not be able to give me a vest, that would have allowed me to get onto the track to shoot. Modestly disappointed, I simply responded, "OK". He then told me that I would have to shoot from the stands.
Reflecting on gratitude for even being here, and truly excellent parking, I wandered around the clubhouse area to determine where I might position myself, and remain behind the fence that separates the spectators from the track, finding a number of good options.
Rain was falling, gently and intermittently. I was well prepared, given the weather conditions just two weeks prior, for the Kentucky Derby. Sporting my $4 yellow rain jacket, I explored the interior levels of the stands to find the spot where I would be meeting friends around post time for the first race.
The grandstands at every track are different, and a little bit the same - they all have their own special arrangement of staircases and passageways that won't get you where you want to go. Because admission prices vary, depending on the location of your seat and the amenities offered, it can be challenging to find a way to get from one section of the stands to another. My journey seemed to keep me from finding the second level, where my friends would be hanging out in between races. As it turns out, I thought the second level was the first level, and had landed there several times before exploring a little further and finding our meeting spot.
Friends arrived just as horses were being called to the post for the first race, and I headed out to the platform and the bottom of the rows of seats in that section to take in the action.
The first race turned into a thriller, with the 7-2 favorite just clipping his closest rival at the wire. And the rain continued to fall.
The second race, intended for the turf, was moved to the main track, due to the wet conditions. At a mile and a sixteenth, the starting gate was positioned so that the horses would pass a portion of the stands twice. The first time past, silks and saddle towels were free of mud.
As the horses cleared the final turn and headed down the home stretch, every single one of them were affected by the conditions and covered in mud as they ran to the wire.
Just as the horses were reaching the gate for the third race, a 6 furlong sprint, the rain started coming down harder, keeping most spectators inside. As in each race prior on this day, the odds on favorite came home first.
The fourth race was run on the turf, as scheduled. When conditions are as wet as those experienced in Baltimore over the past few days, the grass can get pretty beat up with each contest. As the racers rounded the clubhouse turn, turf flying, you could see just how much damage could be done over the course of a day.
The fifth race was the first stakes race of the day, a five furlong sprint. Because of the distance and the fact that was a sprint, the horses out front were relatively clean as they reached the wire.
I sat out the next race, but was back to see Happy Like a Fool reach the wire first in the Adena Springs Miss Preakness Stakes, a six furlong test.
The next stakes races was the Pimlico Special, after which the stands were clear, due to the weather.
NBC commentator, Donna Brothers, did her pre-race stand up just below my position, under the protection of an umbrella. The rain let up slightly as the horses in the Jim McKay Turf Sprint left the gate, bringing some spectators out to the rail on the main track.
After what had felt like a very long day, the fillies for the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes began arriving, walking from the barns on the backside, along the outer rail, as a trio of tractors sealed the track.
As soon as Red Ruby, a sharp grey filly, crossed the wire, I was packing up to head out. Three races remained on the schedule, so I had little difficulty making my way to my car and getting quickly back to my hotel for a little dinner and some much needed sleep.
Rain is forecast for the Preakness Stakes. We'll soon see if it brings with it racing luck for the Kentucky Derby champion.