"Can you imagine how he's feeling? He must be on the moon."
We traveled to Louisville, Kentucky to document the 2016 Derby experience.
Photography by: Justin Chung
Text by: Sean Hotchkiss
Design by: Studio Faculty
Our first stop on this cold Kentucky morning is the home of Dallas Stewart Racing Stables. Terry and Dallas have worked together for two decades, and their successes include second-place 2014 Derby finisher Commanding Curve, whose muzzle we now run our fingers over as Terry beams. “This guy,” he says over and over again, wrapping his arm around the horse in a full headlock and kissing him on the forehead. “This guy.” Commanding Curve came from behind on the final stretch, jumping from 18th to 2nd in a blink, and to hear Terry tell it, his eyes glowing, is like listening to a proud father wax on about his child. “Man, he kept us guessing.”
Dallas Stewart, the proprietor, arrives in mirrored sunglasses and hat, and shakes our hands. Stewart is another rags to riches story in an industry now full of them. “He grew up dirt poor,” says Finley. “Started as an exercise rider for [iconic trainer] Wayne Lukas – who is kind of the John Wooden of our sport.” Stewart has come a long way from those days of valeting. He is now a success himself, with almost 40 million in career earnings, thousands of victories. “Let these guys rest, big day today,” Dallas says to us in his loopy Louisiana drawl. Then his hands are on our backs as Finley leads us out of the stables and into the press area. Our access into the secret rooms of thoroughbred racing, at least for now, is over.
Friday in these parts is known as “Oaks Day.” The Kentucky Oaks, the sister 1 ¼ mile sprint to the Derby is staged in the evening and races run all afternoon. For attendees, the color pink is strongly encouraged and after five minutes of roaming the grounds, we can see the 100,000-plus patrons seem to follow the dress code strictly – pink dresses, pink ties, pick pocket squares, pink hats, all worn in the name of Breast Cancer Awareness, but also of a certain solidarity. This is tradition. These are the rules. We sit in the grandstands and watch race after race, placing a few bets and drinking bright red Grey Goose Lily cocktails adorned with fruit and of course, icy and strong whiskey-spiked Juleps. The sun feels good on our faces, the buzz of the crowd grows, and the peanut shells gather on the concrete steps below us, but our minds are back in the stables.
After the races we’ve arranged to meet Terry again, but he calls sooner. “My buddy just won the Oaks!” He yells through the phone drowned out by the buzz of the stadium. “Do you want to meet the horse?” Our pal Jim, from earlier, has gone off the clock, and the gate near the backstretch is open. We slide through and walk briskly in the late afternoon heat to see about John Servis. A few spectators mill about by the winning trainer’s stables, but it’s mostly quiet. Before long, a groom leads Cathryn Sophia, the victorious filly, back to the hay rather unceremoniously. The horses’s veins seem to pulse and pop as she walks by. Servis purchased her for $30,000, a paltry sum by current standards that made her least expensive horse in the race, a wildcard and now a winner. (Servis also won the Kentucky Derby in 2004 with Smarty Jones. Very few horse trainers have won both the Oaks and the Derby.)
Terry arrives resplendent in a pinstriped suit, smoking a cigar. “John is an old friend of mine,” he says. “Can you imagine how he’s feeling? He must be on the moon.” Servis comes from the track, his shoes still sandy, and they embrace, holding each other for a moment. “Get a picture for a couple of Philly boys,” Terry says, cheesing. (Both Servis and Finley spent their childhoods in Pennsylvania.) Servis, unseasonably tanned and wearing an emerald green sports jacket, tells us his father was a jockey, that the only thing he’d ever wanted to do is train horses. “I took my graduation money from high school and bought my first horse for $375,” he says, still grinning, still on the moon. “His name was Mr. Spaceman.”
The next time we see Terry is a few hours before the Derby the following day. Saturday. “Meet me in the paddock,” he says . “The energy there is off the charts.” Security is tight, but Terry waves us through and we walk amongst the owners, families, friends, and West Point investors. There is Dallas Stewart again, and there is legendary trainer Bob Baffert, his white hair bouncing.
The saddled horses are led in, and cameras snap, suited patrons look on and it’s difficult, standing here amongst racing’s inner circle, to not feel something. Maybe it’s privilege. Maybe it’s excitement. Maybe it’s complete and utter foreignness.
Now come the jockeys, down the stairs from the Churchill Downs clubhouse, wearing their colorful racing silks. Some have the fresh faces of youth, grinning like freshman, while other’s faces appear grave, with deep lines formed by the sun, by age, by what they’ve seen. Mentally, physically, theirs isn’t a forgiving sport. But if you’ve ever happened to see a jockey in the spare moments after a race, after a victory, holding on to that horse, encasing its strong neck and crest in that same headlock that Terry put on Commanding Curve yesterday, then you’ve seen true elation. True awe. And maybe true love, too.
The Walkover, as it is known—through the tunnel, from the paddock to the track—is a rush. Hands clutch on to racing programs, or hold dutifully onto children’s hands in anticipation. There are sunglasses and shade and then sunshine, the smell of spring rain not yet fallen, dirt and freshly mowed grass, of hot dogs from the stands and of beer from the concourse. It smells like America wants to smell in that tunnel.
Every race is big on Derby day, but admittedly, the race we take in from the owner’s box isn’t the Big One. And Terry’s horse, Dallas’s horse, doesn’t win, place, or show. Afterwards, we spot Stewart and Finley walking with their arms around jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. analyzing the outcome, Hernandez’s right hand gestures, shaping the line he would have taken, could have taken to victory. All three men’s heads nod together in unison as they walk. Hernandez is caked in dirt, but his West Point Thoroughbreds bright yellow jersey is visible, even in the dark recesses of the tunnel.
We’re back in the grandstand now. Just in time for The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports, as Nyquist, the favorite bay colt, takes the top prize, and with it the wreath of roses. Looking left or right at the sea of people, watching the entire stadium stand, explode on the home stretch, to feel the electricity of it all, it is overwhelming. It is special. But it won’t, can’t even touch those strangely intimate moments of Friday evening, the fading sun warming our arms, when Jim was nowhere in sight, John Servis had just gone to the moon, and Terry, his strong frame supported by a corner of the concrete stable, cigar smoke swirling around his bald head like a halo, had been our savior. ■
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Faculty Department offers a glimpse inside the lives of noteworthy individuals—while at work, inside their homes, during a particular daily routine or within the stillness of a moment. It is my hope that these vignettes offer a rich perspective on these individuals’ philosophies and approach to life; things we can all learn from, or simply appreciate. — Justin Chung
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