The starting gate of Road to the Kentucky Derby opened this past Saturday in Louisville. For my husband, Casey, this weekend also marked the beginning of a new decade. We decided to celebrate his birthday ending in zero with a trip to Churchill Downs for the opening of the September meet and the start of Derby prep season.
We left Arkansas Thursday after work. We overestimated our abilities as road warriors, and we were drained when we arrived in Louisville after 2 a.m. Our accommodations at the Embassy Suites Downtown absolutely exceeded expectations. This historic property was the first in the family to open with Embassy’s new modern look. It is nicer than any Embassy we’d ever stayed in, and the staff was above and beyond helpful, from being proactive in helping us with transportation to friendliness serving the cook-to-order breakfast. I noticed this is one of the hotels offered through Derby Experiences luxury packages, and I definitely give this hotel a hearty recommendation as well.
The next morning, we cabbed the four miles to Central Avenue and Churchill Downs (Oaklawn Park, our home track, is also located on a Central Avenue, and I enjoyed this minor similarity). We had never been to Churchill before, and I was in awe of sights: the Pat Day statue, the steps the jockeys walk down before the Kentucky Derby (and every race) and especially the iconic twin spires.
In fact, the twin spires were a major influence on our seat selection for Friday. We reserved seats in the Stakes Room, where the walk-out balconies afford up-close views of the spires.
The Stakes Room did not disappoint. The complimentary buffet was exquisite, and our waitress was friendly and kept our glasses full. I was thrilled to acquire more Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks glasses for my collection. We did not select our tablemates--two couples from South Dakota--but we enjoyed them very much. One of the men is a high school friend of Bobby Petrino, the head coach of the University of Louisville football team, who previously was the head coach at the University of Arkansas. This couple attends one of his games each season and all his bowl games (and were in this custom when Petrino was at Arkansas). They were in town for the game against Florida State University. They must have brought Petrino luck, because the Cardinals destroyed the Seminoles the next day.
It was great to see live racing again and some of our favorite racing personalities. The jockey colony at Churchill is strong, with emerging superstars Florent Geroux and Ricardo Santana, Jr. and veterans like Jon Court, who was unfortunately injured on opening day, and Calvin Borel, who recently returned to racing. We saw Julian Leparoux ride to victory. The next day at Woodbine, he guided Tepin, the Queen of the Turf, to her eighth straight win. Long shots came in all day. Unfortunately, the Dacuses missed out on the large win payouts of $43.20 in the third race and $42.80 in the sixth. We didn’t cash many tickets, and I finally gave up picking horses and spent the last race on the patio, basking in the glory of the twin spires.
That night we enjoyed dinner and entertainment at the 4th Street Live district, which is next to the Embassy Suites.
We started our second day at the track with a visit to the Kentucky Derby Museum. We went on the walking tour of the grounds.
My favorite part of the museum was the movie “The Greatest Race” in the 360 degree theater. The theater is an oval, and the screen stretches around the room. The audience sits in the middle on swivel chairs. Several times, the screens show the full track at Churchill Downs, and the audience feels like they are in the infield with the track all around them. The film chronicles the day of the Kentucky Derby from multiple perspectives. I am a stoic who rarely cries, but the experience made me weep. I thought it was a powerful film.
The museum had appealing interactive exhibits. A video talked us through calling a race and gave us a chance to call from a race replay. In a simulated race, we struggled to maintain proper jockey stance. We declined the opportunity to weigh in on the Toledo scales to see if we could make weight (spoiler alert: we can’t). Casey beat me in a heated, close game of Derby trivia.
To round out our Churchill experience, we booked our seats for day two in the grandstand, under the twin spires. A bachelor party was seated in our section, and these gentlemen upheld the tradition of bringing style to the races. They seemed to have a lively time, and when a horse named Two Stepping Groom raced, we all bet it. The gelding ran last, but I trust our groom’s marriage will be more successful.
The featured races of the day were the Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes and the Grade 2 Pocahontas Stakes, the first races on the Road to the Kentucky Derby and Road to the Kentucky Oaks. These are the first of the 35 and 30 races that grant entry into the respective races. I was thrilled to be present for the beginning of Derby season. Not This Time and Robby Albarado were victorious in the Iroquois, and Daddys Lil Darling and Corey Lanerie finished first in the Pocahontas. Perhaps we will see these horses in the starting gates the first weekend in May, but they have a highly competitive road ahead of them.
I made a poor shoe choice for Saturday, so after resting up a bit after the full card, we had one final quintessential Louisville experience: devouring a Hot Brown at The Brown Hotel, which was also within walking distance of the Embassy. The Hot Brown is a unique open-faced sandwich of delight. This opulent hotel is glamorous, and we would love to stay here on a future Louisville trip.
On our way home, we followed the Sunday Churchill races online and cheered Calvin Borel’s first win after his comeback. We analyzed the possible contenders in the Breeders’ Cup races. We discussed the Road to the Kentucky Derby. We selected racetracks to visit in Casey’s next decade. In short, we dreamed about the future.
Knocked on your door at dawn
With a spark in my heart
Dragged you from your bed
And said let me see the colts
Let me see the colts
That will run next year
Show them to a gambling man
Thinking of the future
Have you been drinking no
The all-seeing all-knowing eye is dog tired
And just wants to see the colts
We walked out through
The dew dappled brambles
And sat upon the fence
Is there anything as still as sleeping horses
Is there anything as still as sleeping horses