The announcement came at 5:57 p.m. Saturday over the loudspeakers in the Churchill Downs barn area:
“All Kentucky Derby horses to the mile chute for the walkover.”
It was exactly one hour before post time for the 149th running of the world’s most famous horse race. At Barn 39, assistant trainers prepared Tapit Trice and Kingsbarns, two runners for Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, who had his third hopeful, Forte, the morning line favorite, scratched Saturday morning due to a slight bruise on his right foot.
The 18 Derby horses were brought onto track for one of the many neat traditions associated with this race, when the horses are walked on the racetrack over to the paddock for saddling, accompanied by their trainers, owners, media and seemingly hundreds of others, to the roar of the crowd of more than 150,000.
The first horse race I ever covered was the Suffolk Downs Sprint Handicap on August 4, 1985 as an Item sports stringer. Legendary local trainer Vinnie Blengs gave a leg up to star-crossed jockey Chris Antley on Diggin Ditches, who won his only stakes in a 54-race career.
Since then, I have written about hundreds of races and been in attendance for thousands of others. But for no particular reason, I had never been to the Derby, either as a turf writer or fan. I had no plans to attend this year, either, but when Cody’s Wish was targeted for one of the pre-Derby stakes races, it seemed like as good a reason as any to break my maiden.
Cody’s Wish is named for Cody Dorman, a 17-year-old from Kentucky who was born with a frequently fatal genetic disease – Wolf-Hirschhorn Syndrome – but has beaten the odds. The pair met when the horse was a 5-month-old foal as part of a Make A Wish event at Keeneland race track, about 70 miles from Churchill Downs. (If you’re interested in learning more about the story, visit thisishorseracing.com/news/coming-true-codys-wish-delivers-more-magic/)
Cody Dorman and Cody’s Wish have developed an inexplicable but undeniable connection, and the story has captured the horse racing portion of the population. I first wrote about it last August at Saratoga and felt sufficiently compelled to decide to turn it into a book, which is in process and the reason I made my second trip in three weeks to the other Commonwealth.
With Cody’s Wish making his first start since winning the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile last November, and Cody and his family planning to be in attendance, there were too many reasons to go to the Derby.
The Kentucky Derby is at least as much spectacle as sporting event, and experiencing a crowd of 106,000 on the day before, when the Kentucky Oaks – for 3-year-old fillies – was run, it was hard to fathom what the track beneath the famed Twin Spires would be like with 50-percent more fans on Saturday.
My Derby Day began with a 7:15 a.m. departure from a hotel in Clarksville, Ind., just over the bridge from Louisville. I walked into Churchill Downs at 7:54, sharing a shuttle bus with primarily people who would be working in concessions and other roles at the track. Twelve hours before the Derby, there was plenty of activity already.
The Dormans arrived at 11 a.m. and I was there to meet Cody, his parents, Kelly and Leslie, and little sister, Kylie. As they waited for their Churchill Downs host to show them to their table, they were recognized by more than a few fans, who showed their appreciation for the feel-good story.
“You have a beautiful family.” “Good luck today.” “We’re rooting for you.” One woman told them, “I’m looking forward to the 10th race more than the Derby.”
Cody and his family were escorted to an area adjacent to the winner’s circle in plenty of time for him to renew acquaintances with his equine best buddy when they were bringing the horse to the paddock. Once the race began, Cody’s Wish dropped back to his usual spot at the back of the pack and unleashed a furious rally, doing what he always does when Cody is there: win.
In the winner’s circle, the tears flowed, and not just from people named Dorman.
A champagne toast in the Director’s Room followed and a woman asked if she could be introduced to Cody and his family. Her name: Kate Tweedy, daughter of Penny Chenery, the owner of Secretariat, who won the Triple Crown 50 years ago on the way to cementing his status as the greatest horse of all time.
As a certified Secretariat fanboy, it was a thrill to meet his – sister? – and I took the opportunity to tell her about the letter my good friend, Dr. Jeff Morer, wrote to her mother 50 years ago, professing his undying admiration for the horse, and that he still has the hand-written letter he got back. He will be bringing that letter to the Belmont Stakes to show Ms. Tweedy.
In the paddock before the Derby, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes gave the “Riders up” instruction at 6:42 p.m. Three minutes later, bugler Steve Buttleman played the Call to Post, which, in the unlikely event you do not know what that sounds like, just be near me when my phone rings; it’s my favorite song.
At 6:46 p.m. the horses headed to the track and the University of Louisville played “My Old Kentucky Home,” another tradition that makes the tissue makers happy. At exactly 7 p.m., the horses broke from the gate for their 1¼-mile trip around the Churchill oval, and it took 15-1 longshot Mage 2 minutes and 1.57 seconds to get to the finish line first – two full seconds slower than the immortal Secretariat.
The garland of Red Roses was placed over the 3-year-old colt, who was masterfully ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano. The crowd roared its approval as the sun began to set on a famous racetrack and one of the truly iconic events in American sport.
It was a sight to see and I’m glad I finally saw it in person.
Paul Halloran is a public relations professional who covers horse racing for the Saratoga Special and Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred magazine.