Monday, May 4, 2009

Oaks Overview

It's hard to sift through the madness that was the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby. The days went by like a whirlwind, leaving drunks, high-rollers, and countless discarded tickets in its wake.

Of the two huge days of racing, the Kentucky Oaks day stands out to me as one of the best days of racing I've ever experienced. This could have something to do with my personal cloud-nine incidents, but the people around us and the pinnacle race really made it something to remember, as well.

My day began with a call from; immediately, I thought I was doing something wrong, because this is the way my mind works. I'd been uploading some of my racing photos to their site, including the best of my morning workout images from the week. It turned out, they actually liked me so much, they just wanted to give me a little push in the right direction. I ended up meeting several of the head honchos in the paddock at Churchill Downs and was bestowed with a 300mm prime lens to shoot with for the major races of the day. F-ing A!

If you're not familiar with camera lenses, a 300mm lens is akin to a bazooka. Well, that's what I call it, anyway; I've never actually held a bazooka, but can only imagine it's like this big honkin' lens. It's about two feet long and weighs around 20 pounds. Now, it's not the largest lens I've seen, but it's certainly the biggest one I've ever used. It was cumbersome, awkward, made my arm ache through the next day, and I absolutely loved it. It allowed me to zoom in to tight shots, like this picture of One Caroline breaking in the Louisville Distaff, and made it easier to spy on cool hats that were some distance away from me. That awesome picture of Rachel Alexandra with Calvin Borel giving the #1 sign in my previous post was also taken with that lens.

Carrying around a gigantic lens is a magnet for conversation. I made instant friends at the rail and wherever I walked on the grounds. Even other photographers, walking by on the track, would stop and ogle at it. It amused me that they were the ones with the press pass, and I was the one hulking around this mega lens. I felt pretty special being given the privilege to use it on such a huge day at the races.

Speaking of the races, the day didn't start out so hot. When we first arrived at the paddock, the day's scratches were announced and it was revealed my horse heroine, Zenyatta, had been scratched. Hearing that news was like a stab in the heart. I'd been looking forward to seeing her race even more than the Kentucky Derby! So it was that my Woody Allen moment would appropriately be the last time I'd probably ever see her in person on a race track. Such is my luck. Well, at least for the horses I seem to like (more on that on Saturday. ugh).

While we were in the paddock, we did get lucky on one account. As the scratches were being announced, and a huge collective groan was heard 'round the paddock when they announced Zenyatta's scratch, some un-numbered horses were being schooled right in front of us. Turns out, two of them were Kentucky Derby favorites, I Want Revenge and Chocolate Candy. Since my previous photos of Revenge had been in near-darkness, I finally got my chance to take a boatload of pictures of him. Little did I know it would be my last shot that weekend. He looked fabulous, and extremely calm. Only a couple times did he raise his head and pause to observe the calamity in the crowd. These moments, along with my Horse Photos connection later, would eventually dull the pain of not being able to see Zenyatta race.

I was disappointed in One Caroline's race. If there was anybody that would give Big Z a run for her money, I thought it would be her, but the speedy daughter of Unbridled's Song was brought down by Miss Isella, a daughter of Silver Charm. Go figure, it was Calvin Borel in the irons of the upset. Looks like she'll be going into my equibase barn now. It's good to see some Silver Charm babies making it back to Kentucky.

We were also disappointed to hear about the scratch of Justwhistledixie, who was supposed to be Rachel Alexandra's main competition in the Oaks. I'd seen her every day I'd been at the morning workouts and thought she was tuning up for a good race. Not that I thought she'd beat Rachel, but she'd at least cut into some of that 20 1/4 lengths the Oaks winner ran away by.

I couldn't belive, after a week full of rain, it didn't rain at all on Oaks day. The track was even upgraded to fast in a soggy, gray week. Truly, the sun shone for the Oaks. It was one of those magical days that leave you grinning from ear to ear. I'd been telling anyone who would listen that Rachel Alexandra was going to smoke the field in the Oaks. Surprisingly, and a little bit tragically, many of the people I told this to didn't even know who she was. You never know who you're going to see at the races. There were quite a few college-age people there who were attending just to bet and have a good time and knew next to nothing about the sport. I hope that Rachel made them fans that day.

When she came out, those in the know began to cheer. The spirit in the grandstands began to raise to a party atmosphere. We knew we were in store for a coronation. Rachel Alexandra stepped onto the hallowed grounds of Churchill Downs ready, her eyes bulging, her neck arched. She has the appearance of royalty.

The entire race was set up perfectly for her. Stalking in the second position, the lead filly didn't have a prayer when Borel loostened the reins a bit and let Rachel go. As she began to wind around the final turn and into the stretch, I remember screaming, "There she goes!" And by God, she made my words truth. She did run away with them. The crowd began to roar with every lengthening stride. It was no contest. Borel wasn't even moving on her. Rachel Alexandra was turning the most prestigious 3 year-old race for fillies into one big laugh. "Is this the best you can do?" For her, it was a glorified workout. She ripped past me, balancing my huge lens over the rail, as Borel began to wave his finger back and forth. It was a gesture that symbolized more than #1, it was almost as if to say, "I told you so."

I don't know if I'll ever see such an impressive race like that ever again. The only race I can compare it to that I've seen with my own eyes was Big Brown's Kentucky Derby, but that was an entirely different feat. Rachel won so easily, with no effort at all, by what historians are saying is the largest margin of victory ever won in the Kentucky Oaks. And she almost set a new track record. Her final time was 1:48.97, and the record is 1:48.64. Without even trying!

I know that her trainer, Hal Wiggins, doesn't believe in racing fillies against colts, and it's a shame. She could've not only won the Kentucky Derby, she has the talent to be the Triple Crown winner. There aren't nearly as many talented fillies in this crop as there was last year, and I fear Rachel will not face worthy competition until she faces Zenyatta, and that may only be in the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic... on Pro-Ride. She deserves the opportunity to compete for Horse of the Year, and to do that, she needs to face the boys.

My Kentucky Oaks day ended beautifully, as well. I went back to Bardstown Road, that strip of cool shops and restaurants in Louisville, and went to a pizza place where a band named Hambone was playing live. Talk about a perfect way to end a fantastic day at the races! The garlic cheese sticks were awesome; I can't remember the name of the place, but it's got an outdoor seating area and there's a bunch of lights hanging on the front of the wooden building.

Did I mention I love Louiville?

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