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Thoroughbreds practicing for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs racetrack.

Thoroughbreds practicing for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs racetrack.

Three horses rounded the bend, their feet pounding the dirt in a frantic effort to get ahead. Their jockeys were so close to one another, it seemed their stirrups must surely be touching.

Around me, it was so still and quiet I could almost hear the heavy breathing of the thoroughbreds, their mighty lungs sucking in air as they fought to be victorious.

While I was only watching race horses practice at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky on the Finish Line Tour, my heart was racing too. For I wasn’t watching just any thoroughbreds, I was watching three that would run in the Kentucky Derby–the oldest continuously run sporting event in the United States.

FAQ about the Kentucky Derby:
  • The Kentucky Derby first ran in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 17, 1875, and was won by a horse called Aristides, ridden by African American jockey, Oliver Lewis.
  • The Kentucky Derby was started by William Clark’s (of the explorer team of Lewis & Clark) grandson, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr.
  • The Louisville track was named Churchill Downs for John and Henry Churchill, who provided the land.
  • Horses running in the Kentucky Derby are three-year-olds.
  • While the Kentucky Derby is the longest continuously running event in the United States, both of the other Triple Crown Races started earlier, but missed years: Belmont Stakes started in 1867, and the Preakness Stakes in 1873.
  • The three horse races, the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, and Preakness Stakes, were first referred to as the Triple Crown as early as 1923, but the term is commonly credited to sports writer, Charles Hatton, from the Daily Racing Form in 1930. The Triple Crown Trophy wasn’t commissioned until 1950.
  • The Kentucky Derby has been the first event in the Triple Crown since 1931.
  • Sir Barton was the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 1919.

While I grew up on a farm that eventually became a horse ranch, the Qu’Appelle Appaloosa Ranch or QAR, my interest in horse racing preceded its beginnings. I have one all-time favorite racehorse, the first Canadian horse to ever win the Kentucky Derby, Northern Dancer. This young stallion won seven of nine starts when he was a two-year-old, so when his new Texan jockey, Bill Shoemaker,  got him as a three-year-old, he was already an established winner. Shoemaker, however, decided to ride Hill Rise in the Kentucky Derby, leaving Bill Hartack to become Northern Dancer’s permanent jockey.

I remember the 1964 Run for the Roses (another popular name for the Kentucky Derby) well. It was May 2, 1964–I was as excited as all the other Derby fans as I watched the black and white television count down to race time. Even though he was a small horse, Northern Dancer was still a favorite, running second in the betting only to Hill Rise, the horse Shoemaker had chosen to ride.

Both Hartack and Shoemaker held their horses back at the start of the race, so Mr. Brick set the early pace. But the pace was still fast, with Northern Dancer soon taking the lead and Hill Rise hot on his heels. Like millions of others, I didn’t breathe as the horses galloped closer and closer to the finish line. Northern Dancer was out front, but Hill Rise had longer legs and a pro for a jockey–he was gaining.

Watch the race yourself on this vintage Kentucky Derby recap from 1964:

 

But Northern Dancer had what it took to become a champion–when the race ended this Canadian horse had set a new track record, finishing the Kentucky Derby in two minutes flat. His record stood until 1973, when it was broken by Secretariat at 1:59.40.

Northern Dancer also took the Preakness Stakes, but finished up third in the Belmont, missing the 1964 Triple Crown by a race. However, Northern Dancer had made his mark on the world, and was named  the1964 Canadian Athlete of the Year–the first time ever for an animal–over such competition as hockey star, Gordie Howe, and the heavy-weight boxer, George Chuvalo, who was never knocked off his feet.

Linda Aksomitis at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, in front of the Barbaro statue.

Linda Aksomitis at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, in front of the Barbaro statue.

Not all dreams come true at the Kentucky Derby, however, and this statue of Barbaro is one. Barbara won the Kentucky Derby by six-and-a-half lengths in 2006, but had a catastrophic accident in the Preakness.

He was deemed all right after a false start, but broke his leg in 20 places just out of the Preakness gate by the grandstand. His jockey, Edgar Prado, pulled him gently to a stop and leaned into the horse’s shoulder to help him balance until he could get help.

Veterinarians gave Barbaro surgery, including new technology originally designed for humans. While it seemed to work, Barbaro developed complications that continued to get more severe over the summer and fall. He was euthanized by his owners on January 29, 2007, when they felt the pain was no longer manageable. He was cremated and his remains interred under the statue at the entrance to Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Museum.

The Kentucky Derby Tour and Museum

Racehorse and groom in the barn area of Churchill Downs, in Louisville, Kentucky.

Racehorse and groom in the barn area of Churchill Downs, in Louisville, Kentucky.

Tour guide, Miss Angie, took my group on the Barn and Backside Van Touron my visit, which was about two weeks prior to the running of the 2011 Kentucky Derby. The tour took us around the barns area, eventually letting us off to watch the horses practice from a vantage point right beside the track, rather than the stands.

While I was lucky to see horses that were entered in the Derby, there are horses stabled at Churchill Downs through the whole season, so no matter when you visit there will be some racehorses around. Grooms will be bathing them, cold walking them before practice and cooling them out after running. You can be sure you’ll get an insider’s view of what happens in the stables before horses get to the finish line.

I also took the Walking Tour through the Jockeys’ Quarters, Millionaires’ Row, the Press Box and other areas of Churchill Downs’ newly renovated clubhouse, which was available through the museum. Whether you’re as fascinated with the Kentucky Derby as I am or not, you’ll find the Kentucky Derby Museum is full of interesting facts and memorable moments.

It was these memorable moments that put my Kentucky Derby finish line and trackside tour in #16 spot on my Staycation review of great places I’ve visited in years gone by. Some of these moments are, of course, my own memories, however, horse racing has been popular for about as far back as sporting events have been taking place, from the ancient chariot races to the “Sport of Kings,” in European history. Our ancestors won wars with their horses and settled nations with them. Today, we celebrate horses  with sporting traditions like the Kentucky Derby.

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