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The Kentucky Derby has many nicknames: among them, The Run for the Roses and  “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” For racing fans, it’s the ultimate day: when we see the brightest stars of the three-year-old crop of horses go head-to-head over a mile and a quarter to achieve fame, glory and the honor of being called a Champion. 

So when I woke up on Saturday morning to a gray, heavy-looking sky, even the threat of rain couldn’t put a damper on my spirits. After all, what’s a little bit of precipitation in the face of the Derby? I was determined to be out there on that racetrack taking photos if I needed a canoe to do it.

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I arrived at the track relatively late compared to the rest of the week: about 8:30 AM. I figured that since Derby Day is typically pretty intense, I should try to get as much sleep as possible.

As I made my way to the track in the media shuttle, I exchanged text messages with Chip McGaughey. He’s one of our ABRV Ambassadors, and his dad just happens to be the trainer of Orb and Point of Entry, both of whom were scheduled to run in the afternoon. If I were Chip, I would have been a nervous wreck; instead he just hoped that the rain would hold off so that Point of Entry would have the opportunity to run against reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan. Talk about good sportsmanship – it runs in the family, as his father Shug is one of the most admired yet self-deprecating people in the business.

When we got to the track, the heavens were already opening up and I hustled to set up shop in my cubby in the press box.  Once the gates opened and the crowd started to roll in, I headed out the Infield to see how fans were handling the less than ideal Derby weather.

This year, Churchill Downs cited that Infield patrons couldn’t bring pop-up tents with them. It’s a safety issue; last year, there was a scary storm on Oaks day and apparently several tents that weren’t staked down properly flew away and people were hurt.

The rain and lack of tents didn’t stop people from coming to the races, though, and the crowd pouring into the Infield was totally stoked to be there.

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So when I arrived in the Infield, I saw that fans were getting crafty to avoid the rain but still have fun. Check out these MacGyvers below:

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Despite the damp, people were still having a ball. I so wanted to climb on one of these bouncey horses and have my own personal Derby!

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Fans crowded to the fence to watch horses competing on racing’s biggest day to see if their chosen critter would bring them riches.

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Of course, there are some people who come to the races just for the party! Torrential rain means plenty of mud, and several revelers were having a blast getting absolutely filthy. These two friends even got into a mud fight – and I managed to catch the moment of impact!

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These guys were having so much fun! Check out the aftermath of their frolicking:

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This poor lady hadn’t planned on becoming one of the mud people – she had just lost her shoe in the deep muck. Fortunately she had plenty of friends there to help her out.

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There were plenty of other folks in the infield who managed to stay out of the mud but still have a blast. I loved some of the outfits I saw, ranging from whacky to refined.

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I also caught these members of the University of Louisville marching band trying to keep out of the rain. Seemed like as good a place as any to find shelter! 

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After my Infield adventure, I did a complete 180 and skedaddled over to the red carpet to catch the celebs rolling in for the Run for the Roses. It was a completely different scene, with famous authors, actors, athletes and personalities arriving in droves to catch the Derby action. Now, I’m not much of a celebrity stalker (although I once freaked out because I caught sight of the guy who played Ryan on “The OC” – God, I loved that show) but I was pretty psyched to see Terry O'Quinn, the guy who played John Locke on “Lost.”

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I wasn’t the only one stoked to see some celebrities on the first Saturday in May; fans were queued up and shouting support as their favorite stars hit the red carpet.

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Celebs poured into the Derby, making the most of the spotlight as they arrived.

Here’s author Nora Roberts, who’s written several New York Times best sellers

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I also saw former New Jersey Nets coach Avery Johnson and his wife Cassandra; they’re both huge horse racing fans.

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Here’s supermodel-turned-WNBA agent Bonnie Jill Laflin with comedian Anthony Anderson.

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I also spotted “American Pie” star Jason Biggs; I actually got the on-air talent from Churchill Downs to ask him what was more American: apple pie or the Kentucky Derby. Bonus!

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Here are Martina McBride and Jane Seymore; they both looked so lovely and were so accommodating to those of us that got a little dorky in the photo line (me.)

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Also: Julius Irving! Dr. J in the house!!

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Now, I am a bit of a fashion nerd, so seeing the lovely Coco Rochas was a thrill for me. I may not ever look that stylish, but I appreciate couture when I see it. Behold magnificence:

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So, I got lucky;  I got to see some really cool people in a fantastic venue on the first Saturday in May, the designated time for the Run for the Roses.

So: I’d done the Infield; I’d done the Red Carpet; wherever would I go next? Easy answer: the racetrack. A little rain? Oh, please. That wasn’t stopping me. I didn’t haul a pair of crazy waterproof combat boots down to Kentucky with me for no reason. After all, I had some horse races to shoot, and some good ones at that.

Now, here’s the thing: you give me galoshes and a giant racetrack full of puddles, and I’m going to splash around. My awesome friend Jamie Newell (who you should follow on Twitter) caught me playing like a four-year-old in the mud on the track. But, come, on, you totally would have done the same thing, too, right?

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Image courtesy of Jamie Newell

Speaking of Jamie, she and I compared guns (i.e. cameras) in the tunnel leading out to the racetrack; suffice to say, hers is sliiiiightly cooler than mine. But Jamie did name my camera; behold: the Bazooka (versus her very cool giant lens)

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Image courtesy of Jamie Newell 

Oh, want to know how wet it really was on track? This is the reason I didn’t feel like a total jag for hauling my boots all the way from New York City:

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But the rain didn’t keep the main attraction, the amazing horses competing throughout the day, from hitting the track.

Sadly, I missed the first major race of the day, the Twin Spires Turf Sprint, but I heard that Brazilian invader Berlino Di Tiger was breathtaking.

I did get to catch the Humana Distaff, the second major contest of the afternoon; this race is annually a top test for female horses, and it was great to see Aubby K take the cake with one of my favorite all-time jockeys on board, Edgar Prado. 

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Amazingly, my little Nikon (newly christened the Bazooka) was holding up like a champ in the rain, so up next was the Churchill Distaff Turf Mile, a race for female horses traversing a mile over the grass. One of my favorite horses of recent years, Stephanie’s Kitten, took home the top honors after fending off the very talented Hungry Island in a very hard-fought stretch battle.

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Up next was the Churchill Downs Stakes. The rain was really coming down at this point, but jockey Rosie Napravnik was so good that she emerged from the race aboard Delaunay without a speck of mud on her. That’s talent, folks.

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Below? That’s the smile of a winner.

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Well, those who regularly follow this blog will hardly be surprised by what comes next: Wise Dan, the reigning Horse of the Year and my #1 obsession, was due to run in the Woodford Reserve. (Side note: this horse often runs in races named for bourbons. That is just one of the many reasons why I love him so much.) Anyway, remember waaaay back at the beginning of this rather long-winded Diary when I mentioned that my friend and ABRV Ambassador Chip McGaughey was praying that it wouldn’t rain too hard so that his dad’s trainee Point of Entry could compete against Wise Dan? Well, sadly, the torrential rain caused Point of Entry to scratch, but Wise Dan was still going to run. No way I was missing this: I basically stalk Wise Dan, so it would take an injunction at this point to keep me from taking pictures of him.

So: It was the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, it was raining like Noah was waiting on it, and Wise Dan was running. And run he did: he made it look so easy, and once again I completely dorked out on the photography line. Whatever, I don’t care: he’s Wise Dan and I love him. Look how pretty:

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See? Wise Dan even smiles when he wins. He’s that cool.

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Oh, right! But we were all here for another race: that little thing called the Kentucky Derby. It really is indescribably cool, and it’s something that everyone should experience at least once in their lives.

Now, many people don’t know is that there’s a little over an hour between the race before the Derby and the big show; miraculously, this year, the rain stopped in that time period and I actually got the chance to take in some awesome fan fashion in the time between races.

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And then. And then! It was time for the walkover. This is when the horses, their grooms, trainers, and owners travel from the barn area to the paddock amidst cheers from the crowd. It gives me goosebumps just to write about it; it’s that cool.

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Once the horses have their saddles on their backs and the jockeys have their instructions, it’s Kentucky Derby time. I’m here to tell you that there is no feeling in the entire world like the adrenaline rush that happens when those horses surge out of the gate and 150,000 voices scream in unison to cheer them on. It’s hair-raising, breathtaking, and any other form of hyperbole out there. It’s magic. It’s crazy. It’s Derby.

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In the end, amidst crazy screaming, I was sitting on the soaking wet ground trying my hardest not to lean forward so I wouldn’t block other photographers’ shots, craning my head to see who was leading the pack coming into the stretch. I’m not ashamed to say that my voice joined countless others’: I remember screaming, “It’s Orb! Orb! Orb!” as the mighty colt took home the 139th Kentucky Derby. My hands shook, my eyes teared. Derby is just that way. 

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It doesn’t hurt that the owners and trainer of Orb are amazing Shug McGaughey, the man who trains Orb, is about the coolest guy ever. He’s an old-school trainer who only cares about the welfare of his horses and is quick to deflect credit from himself and onto his barn staff. Orb’s owners, Stuart Janney and Ogden Phipps, have campaigned such legendary horse racing names as Ruffian and Easy Goer. His jockey, Joel Rosario, just piloted 2011 Kentucky Derby Animal Kingdom winner to a victory in the $10 million Dubai World Cup this March. These are quality people, folks.

Trainer Shug McGaughey emerges onto the track after winning the Kentucky Derby:

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McGaughey in the middle of the post-Derby press scrum:

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Jockey Joel Rosario grinning in the post-Derby press conference:

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Owners Stuart Janney (left) and Dinny Phipps (right) happy at the post-Derby press conference:

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Trainer Shug McGaughey smiles after winning the Derby:

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So after it all, Orb ruled the day. It may have been wet, it may have been cold, it may have been crazy and it may have been a little weird, but God do I love Derby. Thank you all for sticking with me this week and I can’t wait for Preakness!

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Image Description

Penelope Miller

I'm Penelope Miller and I'm the Senior Manager of Digital Media for America's Best Racing. I've been involved with the Thoroughbred industry for most of my life and I want to make sure that the great sport of horse racing is enjoyed by people all over the nation. Please share your thoughts and ideas with me in the comments section below!

Image Description

Penelope Miller

I'm Penelope Miller and I'm the Senior Manager of Digital Media for America's Best Racing. I've been involved with the Thoroughbred industry for most of my life and I want to make sure that the great sport of horse racing is enjoyed by people all over the nation. Please share your thoughts and ideas with me in the comments section below!

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