Standing pinned up against the railing at the Churchill Downs paddock, dozens of people clamored around me to get a glimpse of…well, not much of anything. The paddock, where before each of the day’s races the horses parade in front of fans and horseplayers before being saddled, was devoid of horses - but it was far from empty.
It was a packed house at the Louisville, Kentucky track, home of the world-famous Kentucky Derby, which takes place every year on the first Saturday in May. On Saturday, June 16, the track was holding its first “Downs After Dark” evening race program, which would play host to two “Win and Your In” qualifying races for the 2018 Breeders Cup this fall. But the dozens of media members, each anchored down by multiple cameras hanging from their necks, notepads, recorders, and microphones, weren’t there for the races. They were there to see a horse that wasn’t even running. They were there to see one big, beautiful chestnut with some serious star power.
And when Justify, who on June 9 became the 13th Triple Crown winner in horse racing history, emerged from the shadows of the tunnel beneath the grandstand to enter what was becoming an increasingly small walking ring (no personal space bubble here), the crowd roared in excitement. Shouts rang out as trainer Bob Baffert parted the seas of the crowd to meet his horse, much like I’d imagine red carpet celebrities handle paparazzi. Bob is the George Clooney of Thoroughbred trainers, and carries the same level of respect and awe. NBC cameras were front and center, walking backward as the gleaming, muscular colt strode head on toward them. Every time Justify, plaited with braids and sporting a new custom “Triple Crown Winner” cooler, turned an ear, thousands of cameras snapped, and the media followed the colt like they were attached by a magnetic force. Fans, stacked four-to-five deep around the 180-degree railing, were holding up their cell phones, taking video and recording Snapchats to prove they were a part of the history happening before them. Because, if you don’t take a selfie, did it really happen?
Bob, along with the remainder of Justify’s connections, including jockey Mike Smith, part-owners WinStar Farm and Starlight Racing, and breeders Tanya and John Gunther, received their engraved Kentucky Derby trophies that night, and, in the most sportsmanlike of gestures, decided to parade the Triple Crown winner before his many adoring fans, at the site of the colt’s breakout victory in the Derby (There will be another in California at Santa Anita Park, where Baffert is based). I flew into Louisville that morning—a last minute decision—so I could be in attendance, and I’m so glad I did.
"Bob Baffert parted the seas of the crowd to meet his horse, much like I’d imagine red carpet celebrities handle paparazzi"
It was a day where things just seemed to come together. My flight was not only on time, but it was even early, and I joined friends Brooke and Page Giacin trackside at Churchill, where together we met Cathy Riccio, barn manager for Kentucky Oaks-winning trainer, Brad Cox. Cathy, ever friendly, exuberant, and generous, took us by Justify’s stall at Bob’s barn on the backside, which was adorned with custom plaques outlining (just some of) the affable white-haired conditioner’s greatest achievements—two Triple Crowns (See also: American Pharaoh, 2015, in case you were wondering), three Kentucky Oaks winners, and Hoppertunity’s win in the 2014 Grand 1 Clark Handicap. Justify calmly watched us while munching on a generously-packed hay net, and we watched back in awe, like we’d never before seen a horse quite like the one standing before us (but had we?).
Later in the day, Bob took the time to sign posters, and we posed with the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown trophies like unapologetic super-fans. We stood for two hours to secure our front-and-center spots at the rail, and the view (and the photos) were undoubtedly worth it. At the end of the evening, we joined Cathy, Brad, and the remaining connections of turf miler Mr. Misunderstood as the gelding notched the biggest win of his career in the Grade 2 Wise Dan Stakes. We willed him home from the Winner’s Circle and stayed there for the winning photo when the bay crossed the line first. Although Justify had long returned to the comfortable confines of his stall on the backside, the crowd stayed for racing, food trucks, and a live band. There will be more of that when Justify hopefully lines up for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, set to take place at Churchill for the ninth time in November.
An estimated crowd of 40,000 was in attendance at Churchill for Justify’s appearance, and 157,000 attended this year’s Kentucky Derby, eighth-highest in the event’s history. Can you imagine such a crowd clamoring to a horse show to watch World Cup Finals champions HH Azur and Breitling LS hack in the schooling ring? What if NBC wanted to air the World Equestrian Games on its main network, live, in primetime? How many times have you told someone that you ride horses, and they responded by calling you a jockey and asking how many races you’ve won?
Racing certainly has its own flaws and issues to contend with, just like any sport, but it has the edge over show jumping when it comes to public awareness and following. The sport is easy to understand—simply cross the wire first—and anyone can get involved and feel invested by placing a couple dollars on something as a simple as a win bet. The Daily Racing Form offers data unlike anything available in show jumping, from win percentages to Beyer Speed Figures, surface strengths, and times. The Formulator, available for subscription, goes even more in-depth, with statistics like, “Win percentage of trainers with horses going a route of ground on turf after a layoff greater than 180 days.” Yes, really.
"What if NBC wanted to air the World Equestrian Games on its main network, live, in primetime?"
But show jumping is not that difficult to understand, either. The concept of keeping the jumps up and doing it in the fastest time has to be easier to comprehend than the National Football League’s “Tuck Rule” (Google it!), though the NFL is still picked by 37% of U.S. adults as their favorite sport to watch, according to Gallup. So how can show jumping begin to bridge the gap between itself and other sports, so that we, as loyal equestrians, can assure that it thrives and remains a part of historic, prestigious events like the Olympic Games? There’s no clear-cut answer, but, just as it is each and every time we get in the saddle, there is always room for improvement.
Education is a key component, and more data and statistics are essential. How great would it be to look at a start list of riders and see win percentages (like a batting average) for riders and horse-rider combinations? Or to know records, like how many times a particular rider had won a class or for how many years they’ve competed at a particular level (say, in five-star competitions). That would help educate casual fans and assist them with picking out a winner from a start list, and who doesn’t get excited when their selection wins? From there, said fan might want to learn more and continue to follow that particular rider or horse.
If we want show jumping to receive more television coverage, which will give it the biggest reach, we need to put out the best product we possibly can. This is where I strive, each and every day, to be better—to tell better stories, to educate more people, and to get more people excited about this sport so they can connect with a horse or rider and want to come back, read more, or watch again. Working on the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping North American League, I aim to talk about a grand prix not only in the context of the day, but also in the context of the entire league season and the battle for qualification points for the World Cup Finals. It makes the classes more impactful and exciting, and if I’m not excited about what I’m talking about, how do I expect anyone else to be excited about it?
"This is where I strive, each and every day, to be better—to tell better stories, to educate more people, and to get more people excited about this sport..."
While working at Upperville recently, the USHJA International Hunter Derby was put on hold so that the show could air the Belmont Stakes live. Everyone cheered as they watched Justify secure his place in history on the jumbotron. Why can’t this work the other way? Why can’t a racetrack put its fifth race on hold to show the final round at the World Cup Finals?
Someday, I will look back and remember being at Churchill Downs to see Justify, just as I will remember how I was there when McLain Ward got his elusive World Cup Finals victory with HH Azur in front of an American crowd in Omaha in 2017, completing the competition without knocking a single rail. That was an amazing moment, just as Justify’s history-making Belmont win was. Let’s get more of the general public to think so, too, and share more of the great stories in this amazing sport.
Photos by Brooke Giacin. See more of Brooke's photography here.