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Derby Daze

Churchill Downs is a place where oats and hay are turned into money.

This happened more than a decade ago, but I remember it like yesterday because we took pictures.

The Kentucky sun blazed down on my wife and me. Before us was a racetrack that had been groomed to fanatical perfection; behind us were the iconic twin spires of Churchill Downs. We were sitting in a section normally reserved for high rollers.

Sadly, there were no racehorses and very few people present the day we visited the home of the Kentucky Derby. But that didn’t prevent us from soaking up the ambiance and imagining what it would be like to be there on the big day: the massive crowds, the massively frilly hats, the hot sun, and the icy mint juleps. 

Looking at the racetrack, I couldn’t help but think of the kajillions of dollars that have changed hands because of what has happened on that patch of dirt. Churchill Downs is a place where oats and hay are turned into money.

Touring Churchill Downs during the off-season was as close as we will ever come to attending the Kentucky Derby. And even if we had attended on Derby Day, we could have only afforded tickets for the infield, where we would have had to stand all day and our view of the race would consist of the backs of taller attendees’ heads. 

Since we were in Bluegrass Country, we decided to join a group that was touring a stud farm. I wanted to learn about the progenitors of this equine obsession.

Our tour group strolled across the immaculate grounds of Ashford Stud. As we walked toward a wide building that sported a sharp roofline and decorative limestone siding, my wife whispered, “Omigosh! We get to go into the house!”

Nope. The elegantly appointed building we were ushered into was a horse barn.

The interior of the stable was even more posh than the exterior. The deeply-bedded box stalls were constructed of highly polished, furniture-grade oak. An engraved brass plaque above each stall bore its occupant’s name. It was a five-star horsey hotel.

We watched as stable hands lovingly bathed a stallion. The horse received the same level of attention as a Hollywood movie star. Between that and the regular jaunts to the breeding shed, it didn’t sound like too bad a life.

Our Kentucky meanderings took us from Louisville to Lexington, where we visited the most storied racetrack we’d never heard of, a place called Keeneland.

In addition to its racetrack, Keeneland is home to one of the world’s most prominent Thoroughbred auctions. It’s the kind of auction where men in tailored gray suits and black kid gloves lead the animals into the ring. The kind of sale where you don’t dare scratch your nose lest you accidentally expend a fortune on a four-footed addition to your family.

No races or auctions were being held the day we visited Keeneland. On the plus side, we were able to wander freely. It was if we owned the joint.

We walked past the long row of windows where bets are placed, and dreams come true and hopes are dashed. We snuck into the high rollers’ suite to gawk at the opulent accommodations and drink in the glorious view of the racetrack. A person could easily get used to this! 

We’d heard that a cheap and hearty breakfast was available at Keeneland’s track kitchen. Cheap deeply appeals to me, so we checked it out.

We weren’t disappointed. The track kitchen’s breakfast special – scrambled eggs, bacon or sausage, biscuits and gravy, fried potatoes – set us back a whopping $5 apiece. It was a cheap dater’s dream.

The dining room’s walls were covered with photos of equine and human racing champions. Adding to this ambiance were a trainer and a jockey who were talking shop at a nearby table. I found it amazing that the jockey could consume an entire breakfast special yet somehow stay in racing trim.

After breakfast we strolled out to the track, stood at the rail, and watched as racehorses were put through their paces. Millions of dollars’ worth of horseflesh trotted past us. I could hear the beasts’ chuffing and I smelled their sweat.

As one of the horses loped by, my wife abruptly turned to me and said, “You really need a shower! And why does your breath smell like oats and hay?”

Observing the athletic steeds, I couldn’t help but think of such words as “fluid power” and “poetry in motion.” I can see why people are so attracted to equines.

I don’t know much about racehorses, but I do know this: If I’m reincarnated, I want to come back as a resident at Ashford Stud.






Jerry’s book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at and in bookstores nationwide.

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