LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - My favorite Kentucky Derby memory is less than a year old. Working as a TV reporter at the time, I was on the backside of Churchill Downs every morning for two weeks prior to The Run for the Roses. The energy and anticipation for the biggest day in horse racing are palpable there well before the horses ever reach the starting gate.
I was assigned a story on Lynn Whiting. The 1992 Derby-winning trainer (Lil E. Tee) had passed away in mid-April, just weeks before the 25th anniversary of his career's pinnacle. I had conducted interviews with Pat Day, the Hall of Fame jockey who rode Lil E. Tee on his winning trip, as well as other trainers who had known Whiting well. I had most of the video I needed for the story, but went to get a few more shots of Whiting's barn. It was the closest one to the track, directly opposite of Churchill's Twin-Spires. That is when I met Mike Johnson.
Johnson, was one of Whiting's closest friends, as well as a mentee of the Derby-winner. He was kind enough to give me an interview, and I learned he was the one taking over the care of the horses previously trained by Whiting, a bittersweet balancing act for a grieving friend.
Johnson is an experienced trainer, barely older than 40, as well as an accomplished exercise rider, and prides himself on the way he cares for his horses. When I ask him what is next for him, the horses, and the barn Whiting occupied at Churchill Downs, he simply responds that a crawfish boil is next. That was Whiting's tradition.
Derby Day arrives, thousands of patrons fill the property, and the excitement continues to build. I work my shift on the front side of the track before making the trek through the infield crowd, and onto the backside of Churchill Downs around 4:30 p.m. I take Johnson up on an invite he graciously extended, and drop in on the crawfish boil. He and his wife Erin are joined by dozens of friends, and most notably the daughters of Lynn Whiting.
The horses are tucked into their stalls for the night, and the barn overflows with the sounds of laughter and the smell of creole seasoning as the guests take turns at the two large folding tables topped with crawfish. It is very much a blended celebration of Whiting, and one of his favorite days of the year.
As the Derby gets closer, Mike makes his way to the track side of the barn and hops up onto a wooden barricade typically reserved for corralling his horses. He wears a dark green pullover with padded elbows, blue jeans, and a St. Louis Cardinals baseball hat. His perch is just high enough to see over the patrons filtering through the backside.
When the horses do eventually make their way to the starting gate for Derby 143, Mike hops down from the barricade, and makes his way to a pickup truck a few yards closer to the rail. He hops up on the open tailgate, and peers over the infield to the far side of the track. It's still difficult to see over the crowd, but the noise from the grandstand is impossible to mistake as the horses leave the gate.
From the truck bed, you can follow the heads of the horses as they run the opening stretch. On tip-toes, Mike follows the race with tempered excitement as the pack rounds the first and second turns. The group thunders down the back stretch and passes our vantage point in the blink of an eye, and on the second blink, Mike is down from the truck, wide-eyed, and sprinting to the office in his barn. His friends follow suit. No more than 15 seconds later, more than a dozen people cram into a ten foot by ten foot office, another 10 or so stand right outside the door. We're all watching the race play out on a small television in the office.
Always Dreaming wins the garland of roses. Some people in the room are happy with the outcome, some are sour over a lost bet, and for the most part the scene resembles most Derby parties.
The race itself wasn't why this was my favorite Derby memory, but more so the way Mike Johnson appreciated the event. It was the look in his eye as he ran back from the track to see the end of the race. It was the passion he had for his profession in spite of the early mornings, late nights, constant travel, and hard labor it necessitates. It is because despite having seen the Derby so many times, it is still a rush because he's heard first-hand what it is like to win. It was the aspiration he has to put a winning horse in that race, like a man standing at the base of a mountain, saying "I can't wait to see the view from up there."
Also the crawfish.