John Boel: Witnessing a spectacular bid with a little silver charm

John Boel: Witnessing a spectacular bid with a little silver charm
(Source: John Boel/WAVE 3 News)
(Source: John Boel/WAVE 3 News)

. - LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - I've watched the Kentucky Derby from every conceivable angle: The rooftop, the infield, the press box, sweet seats and Millionaires Row.

To be honest, watching the Derby in person was getting a little tired to me, not because of the 12-hour days I work. I've rushed home the past few years to watch it on NBC because the network does such an incredible job. But this year was different. My friend and former co-anchor had a couple of horses in the race. Her name is Jill Baffert.

Yup. That one. Married to Bob Baffert, who trained the best Derby tandem since Citation and Coaltown in 1948.

Because of Jill, I got to greet American Pharoah and Dortmund several mornings in their stalls when they awoke at 4:30 a.m. Because of Jill, I got to feel Dortmund's bicuspids clamp down on my arm in a live report.

And because of Jill, I found myself choosing to watch the Kentucky Derby on TV in the paddock. Bob often watches the big races on TV so he can see how the horses break and how their trips went. You can't get that up in the expensive seats. Bob and Jill and their 10-year-old son Bode stood, literally, out on an island. I stood right next to them, with my wife. Everyone was watching them watch the race. An NBC camera crew was right in Bob's face for a long time getting every move he made. Such a personal, wonderful, nervewracking moment for the Baffert family, and the live camera was less than 5 feet away at all times.

It felt good to be a fan instead of a journalist. I didn't have to do any more reporting. I had some money riding on Pharoah winning the race. And I felt valuable in my role as a groupie who feebly tried to calm Jill down before the race. I felt bad for their Bode. He didn't know what it was like to win the Derby. He's only seen second-place heartbreaks. He was way more nervous than a 10-year-old should be.

When the race went off, the Baffert clan didn't move much. A sweeping feeling of relief came over everyone as Dortmund and Pharoah emerged unscathed and found the front of the pack with little trouble. All of us knew what was coming. All of the jockeys were doing a masterful job of giving their horses the perfect trips to suit their styles. And when they hit the top of the stretch, in a three-horse dash, and I looked over at the silver-haired trainer going crazy, I couldn't help but remember the 1997 stretch duel between Silver Charm, Free House and Captain Bodgit.

When Victor Espinoza got out the whip for the first time ever on Pharoah, and pushed the go button, I thought he would explode and crush everyone. But clearly that wasn't going to happen, and the race was even in doubt as Firing Line fired back. Feeling the roar of the crowd behind us, smothering us like a blanket, the rest is a wild, screaming, jumping, pounding blur. Programs flying, hugging, crying, even some tackling. Bode could go back to being a crazy boy again.

We ran to the Winner's Circle. Jill couldn't get her heels on. So she ran barefoot in the horse dung. The billionaire owner of Pharoah was slightly late to the party because he was throwing up. I thought rich people had seen everything.

Finally, I had to break away. It's a life I'll never live, but it felt good to get a taste. I felt like groupie time needed to come to an end. It was time to go to the betting window and introduce myself to Ben Franklin.

John Boel is a co-anchor on WAVE 3 News "Sunrise."

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