Monday morning, April 19th: It’s been quiet for a little while, but at about 8:25, the stirrings begin. The clockers resume their places: binoculars are raised, stopwatches poised. After a morning of commonplace workouts—oh, except for that bullet that Rachel Alexandra fired at 6:30—the Churchill Downs track is about to become something of a private playground.
Under a new policy, after the mid-morning maintenance break, the track at Churchill is for the exclusive use of Derby and Oaks contenders. Though this year horses can work out under the lights before the sun comes up, they would then have to deal with racing riffraff, with any old horse that might dare to venture onto the track with them.
At 8:30, though, it’s all theirs. Actresses get to shop in exclusive boutiques that are closed to the public to ensure their privacy, athletes take over clubs for their personal use, and these equine rock stars get one of the most famous pieces of dirt in the world all to themselves for a precious fifteen minutes.
The only price to pay for this privacy is a yellow saddle towel bearing their name; no more “Who’s that?” “Which Pletcher just started to go?” “Is that [fill in the blank]?” Unless, of course, you’ve eschewed the trackside rail for a perch up higher, which offers a magnificent vista of the whole track, but not much in the way of telescopic vision on saddle cloths.
But we do the best we can, even from high up, and fortunately, even non-professional cameras sometimes come through, albeit sometimes blurrily. The usually-reliable Samsung digital captures only hazy, impressionistic horse as Rachel Alexandra crosses the wire in the dark and in the distance (or maybe it was because she was going so fast?); it fares better once the sun is up.
I figured that someday I’d get to Churchill Downs; maybe for the Derby, or, more likely, for a summer afternoon of racing when I would have the place largely to myself. I did not figure that the introduction would take place in the dark at 6 am on a Monday; that my first view of the Churchill track would be from six stories up; that the reigning Horse of the Year would be working out; that it would be two weeks before the Derby. I am not complaining.