LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - One of the best parts of the Kentucky Derby -- or any big race -- happens behind the scenes, in the early, quiet hours of the morning, when only a small, select group of people are even watching.
Cool, dark mornings, a warm cup of coffee in hand and a track full of beautiful race horses going round at various speeds -- what could be any better?
For as many years as I've been covering the Derby for various networks, including WAVE, now more than a dozen years with my WAVE 3 News friends, I've spent countless hours watching the workouts that occur between 5:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. A routine part of the conditioning of any Thoroughbred athlete at any racetrack, the workouts of Kentucky Derby and Oaks competitors at Churchill Downs in the weeks leading up to the first weekend in May have taken on immense significance and have become key handicapping tools in selecting a Derby winner.
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I'll never forget one of my earlier Derbies working for ESPN back in 1998. I had gone over to the old press center -- now where the Mansion is located -- in the grandstand to watch some of the horses put in their final Derby breezes. Elbow to elbow with Jay Privman of the Daily Racing Form, then of the New York Times, we watched through binoculars as Bob Baffert’s "other" horse, Real Quiet, loped around the racetrack in a carefree, easy stride belying a fast time for the workout. The press corps and handicappers generally thought Baffert's horse Indian Charlie was the horse to beat. Jay and I put down the binoculars and looked at each other after Real Quiet’s work, almost simultaneously saying "wow." We had found our Derby winner.
Real Quiet came within a neck of winning the Triple Crown, something the Baffert-trained American Pharoah did last year. Similar to his stablemate, last year's Triple Crown winner touted himself early with some exceptional workouts in the weeks leading up to his historic run. And while the horse that looks best in workouts doesn't always win the Derby or the Oaks, rarely if ever has a horse who wasn't working well gone on to win. There's an old racetrack adage that racehorses are like strawberries and can spoil quickly. The way a horse trains in the morning can tell you whether the horse is ripe for picking, or headed the wrong direction.
This year, I have a vested stake in the Derby, as my husband is the agent for jockey Florent Geroux, who rides Gun Runner, winner of the Louisiana Derby and currently the leading Derby points earner. Earlier this week, Florent was aboard the Steve Asmussen-trained colt for his second-to-last Derby work, a 5-furlong breeze (5/8 of a mile) timed in one minute flat. The time was solid, but more importantly, the stride was long and fluid, the horse finished strongly at the end and seemed happy and healthy coming off the racetrack.
About 10 days before the Derby, he and many of the runners will have their final serious, timed Derby workouts. I'll be looking for the same things I saw in Real Quiet, the same things as American Pharoah. And I, along with Gun Runner's connections, will be holding our collective breath until then, hoping he continues to ripen through spring.
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