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Kentucky Confidential

The Backstretch

Putting the ‘Chill’ in Churchill

Watching training in the rain. (Eclipse Sportswire)

It was nothing akin to bravery to be out on the Churchill Downs backstretch Tuesday morning in chilling, windy, rainy weather, when a stable hand at Eddie Kenneally’s barn stood doing his chores in a T-shirt. Then, again, he too eventually donned something warmer, his macho bending to the will of the elements.

“Christ, it’s cold,” the kid said with a shiver.

Normally, the backstretch at Churchill Downs four days before the Kentucky Derby is a lively, even festive, scene. Radio stations set up tables in the open air and broadcast live, high rollers with or without guest passes cruise their spit-polished Porsche and Mercedes SUVs into parking spaces normally reserved for horsemen, and the backside rail draws rows of photographers and wise guys looking for an edge.

For so many in Louisville, and those who come in from around the country, Derby Week mornings are rites of spring. Nothing about this morning, however, started right, with temperatures in the low 40s, and while hearty journalists made their appointed rounds, from barn to barn gathering notes, many among them appeared to have remained in bed, hoping for a better Wednesday.

At 8:30 a.m., the track was cleared of all horses, reserved only for the stars running in the Kentucky Derby and Oaks. Up in the second row of the press box balcony overlooking the track, Bruno De Julio, chief clocker for the website, put on a tour de force of horse identification.

Through gloom, darkness and rain, De Julio peered across the width of two stretches and the infield to the horses emerging from both gaps and ticked them off like family relatives with whom he had just shared breakfast. His binoculars rested unneeded on a stool next to him.

“There’s Mucho Macho Man,” De Julio said.

Who’s the gray?

“Joyful Victory.”

Moments later the track announcer called out the names of both horses.

Archarcharch appeared with a workmate by his side. Then Shackleford, The Factor — an interloper not running in the Derby, or is he? — Soldat and Pants of Fire. De Julio effortlessly called out every single one of them.

“Oh, you should see him at Del Mar when 700 horses are on the track at the same time,” said his partner, Molly Jo Rosen.

Like a galaxy of racing talent, all the horses appeared and began lazy clockwise jogs, splashing through the soaked racing strip.

Kathmanblu, a two-time graded stakes winner, was the first to break off in a serious gallop, counter-clockwise down the middle of the track. The daughter of Bluegrass Cat, third last month in the Grade 1 Ashland at Keeneland, lowered her head and powered around the oval. A full lap later, she continued to move, strong and steady.

Of all the runners stretching their legs, only Archarcharch appeared out there for serious business. Neck bowed and on the outside, the Arkansas Derby winner and his work partner came swiftly down the lane.

“That’s probably as close as you’ll see to a workout this morning,” the track announcer said over the loudspeaker.

De Julio timed it with a stopwatch tucked in his pocket, keeping his comments to himself.

When the track reopened to all comers, the specialness wore off and the cold set back in. It was a good a time as any to beat it over to Wagner’s Pharmacy across the street.

On one side of Wagner’s you can buy a racing form, a shaving kit, a Derby souvenir and perhaps get a prescription filled. On the other, if you arrive early enough, you can sit down in the cozy little restaurant and savor what are reputed to be the best biscuits and gravy in town.

Horsemen love this place. Ahmed Zayat was in Tuesday morning. Phil Lebherz, part-owner of Sway Away, talked hopefully of drawing in to the Derby field. His colt is No. 21 on the money list, and even with an auxiliary gate only 20 horses can start.

Victor Flores, owner of the Twice the Appeal, showed up, and he and Lebherz stood for pictures and video, shoulder to shoulder, brothers in arms, scheming up a superfecta box featuring their two runners with a pile of others.

“It costs $1,200,” Lebherz said.

Lebherz and Flores share the same trainer, Jeff Bonde, who sat there looking pleased and relieved the potential rivals in his barn get along so well. There’s enough stress as is.

Breakfast ended and the warmth had returned to our bodies. Live racing would start in a couple hours. The rain finally let up. It turned out to be a pretty good morning after all, and those who stayed in bed missed all the fun.

The breakfast scene at Wagner’s Pharmacy. (Eclipse Sportswire)

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Author PhotoJohn Scheinman, a long-time writer and editor, covered thoroughbred racing for The Washington Post from 2000-09. He won the Red Smith Kentucky Derby writing contest for best advance in 2007. He is a correspondent for the Thoroughbred Times. Scheinman also has worked extensively in humor writing and sketch comedy. He lives in Washington, DC. More by  ›