Bobby Zen

This past weekend, my husband and I brought five of his old high school friends to their first Kentucky Derby. The group grew up together in Baltimore and while some of them have been to the infield at the Preakness, the Derby was their first authentic race-day experience.

They flew in from various parts of the East Coast. One is an engineer, two are wealth managers, one works in investment banking and another is in business consulting. They are all hard-working, fun, intelligent 26 and 27 year olds. In short, they are the type of people that horse racing very much needs to engage and retain.

A lot of thought was put into their Derby Day outfits and they were thrilled to learn that their general admission ticket bought them unlimited access to food and drinks. Their betting budgets ranged from $200 to $1,200. Some lost, a few won. The big winner on the day put $25 to win on Mystik Dan (Goldencents) because he liked the name and $50 to win on the 47-1 longshot Trikari (Oscar Performance), who won the GII American Turf S., because the older gentleman behind him in line for the betting window told him it was a good pick at a price.

As the day progressed, many of their reactions and comments made me laugh. Some of their questions were humbling, reminding me how incredible our sport is, while others were a bit of a reality check as they made me realize just how easy it can be to live in our “racing bubble” and forget about the general public’s true perception of horse racing. I jotted down a few of their direct quotes that struck me most.

Walking into Churchill Downs: “Wow, I didn’t realize how big it was.”

These were no sports amateurs. Earlier this year, we all went to the Ravens-Chiefs AFC Championship game together (sadly it did not go well for the Baltimore natives). Yet even for these huge sports enthusiastic, weaving through Churchill Downs among 150,000 other race-goers and glimpsing those twin spires poised above a sprawling new paddock was awe inspiring.

While juggling a racing program, a mint julep and the phone he was using to bet with: “I need to get rid of this magazine. It’s a nuisance.”

Four of the five first-time Derby-goers (the other is off getting a chicken sandwich) | Katie Petrunyak

For someone whose racing form is virtually my at-the-track bible, this one made me laugh. Once we showed him how his “magazine” was the key to learning about the horses running that day, he held onto it a bit tighter. Still, it was a reminder of how important it is to make data and other handicapping material easily accessible online, especially for the younger generation that would prefer if they could review information and make their bets all from the device in their pocket.

Seeing the paddock for the first time: “This isn’t a Reds game. Why can’t we go onto the grass?”

For context, the group went to a Cincinnati Reds game the night before. We explained what the paddock was and who was able to visit it. Two members of the group were actually able to go in the paddock for an undercard race and I think their jaws nearly hit the new artificial turf as they took in the sights. Many people working in the industry will go to the paddock on Derby day dozens of times over the years, making it easy to forget that for most it is an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“I want to watch you bet and then I’ll do one.”

Even for someone who is a consistent sports bettor, going up to the window can be intimidating and placing a wager is confusing. It makes me wonder about racing novices who go to the track and don’t have that person with them to explain things like what an exacta is and what it means to box an exacta. How many people are in the industry today because a friend or family member took them to the racetrack and explained the ins and outs of the sport to them? It emphasizes just how significant of an impact it can have on a new fan to go to the track with an experienced race-goer.

5. “67 minutes until post? Why is there so much time?”

Industry members are not the only ones who bemoan the lengthy gaps in between races on the big days. The long waits certainly bring the mood down for first-time attendees as well.

“Is Bob Baffert an owner or a trainer?”

After covering and following the Churchill Downs-Baffert saga for the last three years, this one was a shocker for me when one friend asked this question after they heard Baffert come up in an outside conversation. Many racing insiders have speculated on how there is an asterisk next to this year’s Kentucky Derby because of Churchill Downs’ ban on Baffert’s horses, and while that may be a valid point, to a lot of the general public-especially young people–the basic facts about one of the most recognizable faces in racing are a mystery and they are completely unaware of the issues that have been such a focal point going into this year’s Kentucky Derby.

As the Kentucky Derby contenders came down the tunnel and into the paddock: “Oh guys hold up, these are the Derby horses. That’s pretty amazing.”

And that’s the magic of the Kentucky Derby. It’s not the big hats or the mint juleps or the famous people in attendance. Even for those taking in their very first Derby, all the other hubbub of the day falls away as 20 of the best 3-year-old Thoroughbreds in the world stride into the paddock. Our group experienced that same familiar spine-tingling rush even the most veteran trainers and owners feel when all our cheers meld together into a roar as the crowd hears the call to the post.


So what does this crew’s future in horse racing look like? One of our friends who lives in Baltimore has already asked if Mystik Dan will be at the Preakness in two weeks. Another who lives in New York City is thinking about taking the train up to Saratoga this summer. I don’t think anyone will be making a career change any time soon, but I am fairly sure we will see them all at the track again someday and maybe, just maybe, their names could be listed in the racing program as owners somewhere on down the line.

The post How I brought five young people to their first Kentucky Derby appeared first on TDN | Thoroughbred Daily News | Horse Racing News, Results and Video | Thoroughbred Breeding and Auctions.

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