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Derby Dreaming

What is the Thoroughbred thinking when loaded in the starting gate?

The cross of Arabian stallion and English mare—colt, gelding, or filly—is like an athlete at the starting block, focused on the task at hand. No time for anything else, not even the breeding shed.

The jockey, trainer, owner, breeder, and crowd might be old enough to remember May 5, 1973, when Ron Turcotte aboard Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby in the record time of 1:59 2/5.

Maybe Thoroughbreds don’t contemplate, “I can do it too,” but they’re familiar with race-day procedures. They may not think the way human beings do, but they know what the walk means from the stable to the saddling paddock to the track. It’s performance day!

Shall we say, they are forgiven for not knowing it’s another first Saturday in May, another Run for the Roses, the Kentucky Derby or the Kentucky Oaks (fillies only)? These are the only Thoroughbred stakes races run annually at the same site since the rich tradition began in 1875.

Churchill Downs, constructed with the leadership of Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., became the starting gate for the first Kentucky Derby winner, Aristides, ridden by Oliver Lewis in a time of 2:37.

So what is the jockey thinking when the gates swing open?

“How do I get the horse out of the gate and placed in the spot where I want to be, figuring out how the race is to unfold,” says Kentucky breeder and boarder Bill Dickson of Glen Oak Farm in Bourbon County. “It’s critical, like a cavalry charge coming out of the gate.”

What is the trainer thinking?

“So many variables. Split-second decisions,” says Dickson. “They know the jockeys know what they need to do.” In other words, the reins are in the jockey’s hands when the starting gate opens. And they’re supposed to remain there until after the finish line. Without the jockey there is no Kentucky Derby winner.

What is the owner thinking?

“This is the greatest sport in the world—not in dollar signs, but the prestige of winning the Kentucky Derby.” It recalls names like Baden-Baden, Joe Cotton, Old Rosebud, Judge Himes, Exterminator, Bubbling Over, Johnstown, Hoop Jr., and Sunday Silence.

What is the breeder thinking?

“Hope.”

How do you describe the importance of the Kentucky Derby?

“It’s the most significant signature event within the Commonwealth. It’s extremely important. Our Mardi Gras.”

What does it take to produce a Thoroughbred? (Besides a lot of money?)

“Perseverance. I may never breed a Derby winner, but I’m going to keep trying.”

Two weeks after the mile and a quarter Kentucky Derby, there’s the mile and three-sixteenths Preakness, and three weeks later the mile and a half Belmont Stakes. It’s called the Triple Crown. “Extremely challenging. Takes an extremely versatile horse. A grueling campaign to run, it’s the highest honor in Thoroughbred racing.”

Like no others, the Triple Crown winners have answered the call to the post and the singing of My Old Kentucky Home.

There has been no Triple Crown winner for the past 30 years but that has not deterred Bill Dickson at his Glen Oak Farm. He knows only a few win the Run for the Roses, much less the Triple Crown.

“It’s the dream of seeing your horse win the Kentucky Derby,” says Bill as he heads back to the farm where dreams are always possible.

Who’s your favorite for this year’s Kentucky Derby?

“Dunkirk.”

Second choice?

“Pioneer of the Nile.”

You heard it here.

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