It is the first Saturday in May.
For Churchill Downs, it means that 150,000-plus people will be clamoring beneath its twin spires to get a glance of that year’s winner of the most prestigious race in North America, the Kentucky Derby. While racegoers and contenders alike might wish for sunshine, they will continue to drown in record-setting rainfall, the most that Churchill Downs has seen since 1918 when Exterminator swam through 2.31” of dirt to beat the odds at 30-1.
Perhaps it’s because of the weather or maybe it’s because the Kentucky Derby is such a time-honored, almost religious, tradition in the Bluegrass and people find themselves amassed at local tracks, posh parties or anxiously sitting at home watching the television, waiting for history to be made. Whatever the reason, the usually bustling Kentucky Horse Park is a ghost town with only a few people dotting their carefully maintained pathways, huddled under ponchos and umbrellas or small buildings waiting for the rain to pass.
For the horses in the Hall of Champions, they do not mind the gray day. The 2003 Kentucky Derby winner lays in the bedding of his stall, placidly looking out to the rain as it falls. He cannot be bothered to look at the few spectators who look reverently in – its naptime. His groom chuckles softly, “Given the choice, he’d rather be in when it rains. He doesn’t care for it.” The stall across from the chestnut gelding belongs to 1994 Kentucky Derby winner, Go for Gin. Unlike his sleeping stablemate, the hulking bay horse stares out to the rain with an almost perceptible longing. The groom chuckles again as he eyes the former Bonita Springs stud, “He enjoys the slop but then he showed that in 1994.” He refers to another rainy Derby day when the track at Churchill Downs was marked as sloppy for the first time since 1948.
A statuesque chestnut alertly peers through the grates of his stall, almost as if he is aware that his neighbors are garnering attention that he also deserves. By the way, he stands like an equine Adonis, it never crosses his mind that he placed 5th in his Kentucky Derby in 2001. There is no shame in that placing when one remembers Point Given had been part of an elite field of colts that had record-setting opening fractions and the winner, Monarchos, is one of only two horses to win the Kentucky Derby in under 2 minutes. The other is Secretariat.
Finally, an elderly man stands near the back of the barn, a steady sentinel with over 75 years’ worth of experience in the Thoroughbred industry. He has a string of stories about working the backside but perhaps the most intriguing is a meeting with Will Harbut – the groom of Man o’ War, a horse whose name and legacy still reverberates through the generations of Thoroughbred enthusiasts and industrialists alike. Man o’ War won 20 out of his 21 starts, ironically losing only once to a horse named Upset. Man o’ War did not participate in the Kentucky Derby, his owner Samuel Riddle chose to debut his horse in the 1920 Preakness Stakes. He won and continued on to the Belmont Stakes, where he got his revenge on Upset and set a record for winning by 20 lengths.
The way Gene Carter talks about the horses reminds one of a bygone era when racing stars were simultaneous with top athletes of their day – a time when horses like Man o’ War and Exterminator were compared to Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson. It is an easy way to spend the afternoon as the retired groom talks about the only time he sat on “Big Red” and how he was one of only three people to do so. There are no throngs of crowds, no roars to be heard as the 2001 Horse of the Year Point Given receives his favorite treat, a purple lifesaver or as Go for Gin gazes outwardly onto his pasture through the window in his stall on this rainy afternoon.
Regardless of the day or the records being made at Churchill Downs, the distinguished athletes who belong to the Hall of Champions have earned their place in history.