Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Commensalism: Dialed In and My Derby Experience

--Lucas Marquardt 
America, it seems, has a fascination with all things "behind the scenes"--it's only a matter of time before there is a show dedicated to a behind-the-scenes look at reality shows, which by definition, don't have scenes to be behind. I am an American and no different, and so Derby week is an especially fascinating time for me. I also have the black mark of being an inquisitive journalist, and so there is nothing more interesting than seeing what goes into putting on the biggest show in racing.

The media presence is indeed impressive. Each morning before dawn breaks on Churchill's backstretch, the myriad TV crews pile into their respective white tents, small and in a line and so looking more like stalls in an outdoor market than makeshift television studios. Producers bark into headsets, on-air talent sip coffee and look at notes, and those who work and live on the Churchill backstretch everyday--not just 10 days or so before the Derby--look on with a mix of  bemusement and annoyance. I feel for them. And their horses, some of whom seem fine with the ruckus, while others look like they're about to jump out of their skins.

Last year was my first Derby, and my favorite part of the experience was making the famed walk from Churchill's backside to the paddock just prior to the race. Rains had soaked the area for much of the morning and early afternoon, and the walk was more of a trudge, through the muck and mire, which in the end took nothing away from the excitement of being in the midst of one of the sport's great traditions. Because you're not a participant in the race, you feel a bit like an opportunistic remora, those flat-headed fish that affix themselves to the undersides of sharks and eat whatever scraps their hosts can't gather in. To take part, I was fine with that. Anyway, I followed closely behind the connections of longshot Conveyance (Indian Charlie), and watched as one young lady in the entourage tried to maintain her equilibrium aboard heels of the highest order. In the end, she wisely gave up, ripped the shoes off her feet and made the rest of the journey barefoot. Conveyance took the journey better, and maybe better than he'd take his Derby sojourn: he would set the pace through a snappy six furlongs in 1:10.58 before fading to 15th.

This time around, I was determined to be an even better remora. I brought my camera and took flight from the press box seconds after Get Stormy (Stormy Atlantic) wired the GI Woodford Reserve Turf Classic. In direct contrast to a year ago, the weather was ideal. Clouds and a brief shower at noon had given way to a bright, breezy, sunny afternoon. I made my way down to the track and slipped under the rail. As people partied all around me, I walked along the outside edge of the track. Looking back at the big grandstand, Churchill Downs seemed like a living organism, undulating with all the shifting colors and noises. People yelled and laughed, and only those two big spires remained motionless. Midway through the walk, Jordin Sparks began the Star Spangled Banner, and I thought it best to stop and turn and take it in, and was glad I did.

By the time I got to the backstretch, there was already a big crowd of trainers, grooms, track workers and their friends lined up on each side of the gap leading back to the barns. They were stacked four or five deep, and looked like they'd been having a fine time all afternoon. State policemen were on hand to maintain the shape of the V that came to a point at the tracks edge and fanned out from there, but the people were perfectly content standing where they were and smiling and waiting for the horses to begin lining up.

I had hitched my Derby wagon to Dialed In (Mineshaft), if not after his maiden victory than after his impressive victory in the GIII Holy Bull S., and headed back to Nick Zito's barn, away from the crowd, to watch the big colt ready for what I and my creditors hoped would be a 5-1 date with destiny. At Barn 36, owner Robert LaPenta held court with probably 15 or 20 friends and family. I'm not sure how typical this pre-Derby group was, but I was struck by the near silence. A few people whispered to each other, but mostly it was just the sound of the small single-prop planes overhead, towing banners for Kroger's and the like. When an NBC cameraman and a producer broke through the hushed tones, an elderly lady gave them a stern 'shush.'

Back there, the breeze stopped, and it got very warm. Even I felt nervous. LaPenta's son, Robert Jr., stood with other family members sporting a pair of plaid canvas boat shoes that belied his linen suit, while a trio of ladies snuck away to have a quick cigarette. Eventually, NBC's Bob Neumeier, who had been waiting nearby, sidled up to Zito, and they stood side by side waiting to go live. Neumeier squinted and looked off--I imagine he was listening to directions in his ear piece--and it was a long time before he finally started the interview. Even from 10 feet away or so, Zito spoke so quietly that you couldn't make out what he was saying.

Looking perfectly at ease through all this was LaPenta himself. He has been to the Derby a few times before, including last year with runner-up Ice Box (Pulpit). But never with the favorite--and really, how used to the Derby can one get?--and so one would have to attribute his apparent comfort level to his natural disposition. He just smiled like he was enjoying time with friends at a backyard roast. With only a few minutes to go, someone yelled 'Bob!' and it was trainer Bob Baffert, coming over from an adjacent barn to wish LaPenta luck. They chatted for a few minutes, LaPenta thanked him for something, and the two parted ways laughing. An associate of LaPenta's gave the silver-haired conditioner a fist bump.

A PA announcement was made requesting that the Derby horses be brought to the gap, and the quiet ended. From all directions, the connections of the horses and the horses themselves flowed toward the track, and the V by the gap narrowed and got exponentially louder. Steve Asmussen's assistant Scott Blasi, with eventual Derby runner-up Nehro (Mineshaft), flipped someone a thumbs-up. Asmussen himself followed with his children. Little Kathy Ritvo, who availed herself as an inspiration to many during the week, nervously walked in advance of Mucho Macho Man (Macho Uno) in a flower-print dress and broad-rimmed black hat, decorated with a purple bow, while a couple in the colt's entourage patiently took an elderly gentleman by the hand and led him onto the track. Mike Repole waited with Todd Pletcher, talking with his hands as much as his mouth, and a dozen Italians stood nearby with Repole Stable shirts and hats.

Churchill's one-mile chute turned into a staging area. Groups assembled, TV and track personnel tried to direct the chaos, and the horses became agitated and pinned their ears back. Or they didn't, instead looking around at the fuss and wondering what it was all about. I lost sight of the LaPenta crew on the track, but then attached myself once again when they marched by with Dialed In. It was tough for me to tell how the colt looked. He was up on his toes and on the muscle, but his ears were turned and he appeared distracted. Maybe it was all the noise this long parade was both generating and eliciting from the crowd situated on the clubhouse turn. A big fellow next to the rail suddenly yelled out, "Ladies and Gentlemen, THAT'S the original Italian stallion…Nick Zito!" and everyone laughed. LaPenta just took it all in, holding hands with his wife Laurie Winters.

As the long parade came past the trackside winner's circle, I nodded to LaPenta and wished him luck, then ducked under the rail to join the other journalists gathered there--The Blood-Horse's Steve Haskin and Lenny Shulman standing on the track, Sean Clancy talking into a microphone for his radio show Track Talk Live! Twenty-five minutes later, the gates sprang open for the 137th Kentucky Derby, and when the field stormed past for the first time, I was worried about the chances of Dialed In, caboosing the train and not looking terribly comfortable under the tiny barrage of the kickback of 18 rivals. In the end, he put in probably a better effort than he'll get credit for, rallying from second last 5/16ths out to finish eighth, beaten 7 1/2 lengths by Animal Kingdom. Not a great result, not for the favorite, but not terrible.

As I (and somewhere, my creditors) thought over another blown Derby ticket, the field galloped back to be unsaddled or, in the case of Animal Kingdom, to be adorned with roses. Owners and trainers flooded the track to collect their charges. Aidan O'Brien, with a group that included M.V. Magnier, huddled with Garrett Gomez, who explained his trip aboard Master of Hounds (Kingmambo). Pletcher walked past to hear the report from Stay Thirsty (Bernardini)'s jockey Ramon Dominquez, and Julien Leparoux--Dialed In's rider--sullenly answered questions from a group of reporters. Meanwhile, toward the middle of the track, Dialed In stood amidst the din, dirty and tired, unsaddled and now in the the capable hands of his grooms, as Nick Zito approached him. The Hall of Fame trainer leaned in and gave the colt a kiss in the middle of his forehead, then patted his neck as his grooms turned away from the spires and headed back toward Churchill's backstretch, watching Animal Kingdom trot past.

Dialed In

1 comment:

Brian said...

An eloquently painted picture about an event of which I know very little. Nicely done Marquardt.