No Races, No Problem
Watching the works from the backstretch at Churchill Downs. (Eclipse Sportswire)
Kathy Neuner paused briefly from setting up her tent to gaze out onto the Churchill Downs track, where a handful of favorites for this year’s Kentucky Derby were galloping down the backstretch.
Neuner is one of thousands of people who crowd the normally quiet back side during Derby Week and, as is per annual tradition, pitches a tent and arranges her chairs next to the fence along the outer rail near the gap adjacent to the locally famous Barn 44, which houses the horses of Racing Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
“We try to get the exact same spot every year, and we’ve been doing this for 11 or 12 years now,” said Neuner, a 57-year-old Louisville resident. “This is home for a lot of us during Derby Week, and this will be our spot for both the Oaks and the Derby.
“Heck, we bring all of our own food and beverages in here, so we might not see very much of the races. No lines equals no frustration, so you can bet we have a hell of a time.”
Derby Week along the backstretch rail is an anthropological study waiting to happen.
Dozens of television and radio stations have remote areas set up, where they broadcast live each and every morning, whether it is sunny and hot or rainy and cold.
Hundreds of fans of every age — along with photographers and videographers — gather along the rail as the sun peeks up from the horizon to catch a glimpse of their Derby favorites. It is easy to determine when one of the Derby runners is approaching by the rapid-fire, machine gun clicking of shutters on dozens of cameras as the horses gallop around the turn and head directly into view.
“Look, there’s Bodemeister; isn’t he gorgeous?” one woman said, pointing out to the track to show her husband.
“It’s fine to be gorgeous, but it’s better to be able to win the race — and he has no shot,” he said to no one in particular as his wife clearly had no use for his analysis or opinion.
Such conversations take place every second along the rail, which starts out with only a smattering of fans early in the week but swells to lines three and four deep during Thursday training hours. Children sit atop their parents’ shoulders and adults — no pun intended — jockey for position as the Derby horses go through their early morning paces.
“How can you not like Union Rags?” one gentleman in a dark suit, red tie and gray fedora asked a group of young men in jeans and T-shirts standing directly behind him.
Hats and cocktail attire on the backstretch. (Eclipse Sportswire)
“He thinks we’re here to see the horses, but we’re actually here to check out some fine fillies,” 23-year-old Curtis Riley countered, pointing to a group of 12 young ladies dressed in full-length neon gowns complete with sashes and tiaras that looked as if they just stepped off the stage at a beauty pageant.
“I’m headed back over to the Woodford Reserve tent to see if I can get a few more free samples,” one of his friends said, quickly disappearing into the growing mass of people, blissfully unaware it is not yet 8 a.m.
Or maybe he is aware.
Others hovering around the backstretch during the week are on the lookout for celebrities, both equine and human.
“Mr. Nafzger! Mr. Nafzger! Can I get your autograph?” a woman squealed as she hustled over to cut off Racing Hall of Famer Carl Nafzger, the trainer of Derby winners Unbridled (1980) and Street Sense (2007) as he made his way through a sea of sweat and polyester.
Nafzger stopped and politely engaged the woman in conversation before quickly shuffling back into the anonymity of the crowd.
“It’s a mess back here as the week goes on; just too, too many people,” Nafzger said. “But if it helps get people more engaged in the sport, it serves a purpose.”
More than a dozen people descended on former University of Kentucky basketball Coach Joe B. Hall like ants upon picnic food as he made a brief appearance on the backstretch on Thursday.
Hall grinned despite having not only questions but also pens and paper tossed at him from every direction.
“This is almost like being at a UK basketball game,” he said, only half-kidding.
Longtime Lexington broadcaster Dick Gabriel has spent years conducting interviews and observing the Derby Week revelry on the backside. He’s been asked for his Derby picks more times than he can remember but says he always takes a minute to engage those looking for conversation.
“It seems crazy and chaotic, but it’s more laid back than it is over there,” he says, pointing across the track to the front side. “I’ve seen just about everything back here over the years, but I’m never surprised when I see something for the first time.
“I think people come back here because they feel a lot closer to the horses and the horsemen, and that makes them feel a stronger connection with the sport. I also think they come back here to party just a little bit. I’ not sure some of them even know there’s going to be a big horse race.”
Neuner wouldn’t argue with either of those assessments.
“It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up to be able to get up close to the horses as they come out of the barns and parade over to the paddock on race day,” she said. “You just can” do that anywhere else. It’s just as exciting now as it was the first time I did it, and yeah, there’s a little celebrating going on as well.
“It’s kind of like a mini-infield but more controlled,” she added with a wink, politely excusing herself from the conversation to slide back into the big party.
Kentucky Derby contender Bodemeister gets a bath as a crowd and owner Ahmed Zayat look on. (Eclipse Sportswire)