Morning comes early in Louisville on the first Saturday in May. Amid lush green rolling hills, Magnolias and Dogwoods burst with color heralding Spring's fresh newness. Gentle mist enshrouds the pastures, kissing softly the paddocks of storied Churchill Downs. By end of day a champion will be crowned, the garland of roses draped across his neck.
In wooden stalls, lined with hay, magnificent creatures stir. Three-year olds all and in their prime. It is as if they know this is no ordinary day. Thoroughbreds, tracing their lineage to sires flushed with royalty, Darley Arabian, Godolphin Arabian or Byerley Turk awaken. They have been raised from birth for just a day as this. It is their destiny, the day that fate prescribed from the moment they were foaled.
Grooms and trainers soon will rouse their charges, readying each for what is said to be the most electrifying two minutes in all of sport. Still abed, riders dream of immortality. With blazing silks of red or green, royal blue and scarlet, they will mount these steeds and become as one. "Riders up" the steward will proclaim.
For this one day the South will be as old. In all their finery, gentlemen and gentlewomen sip their juleps slowly and await. They await the herald dressed in polished boots, white riding britches, frock coat and short brimmed cap, to place a trumpet to his lips, blaring out the fanfare, Call To Track. Soon all eyes will turn and adore these splendid creatures. As the first lays foot upon the oval, many dab at teary eyes as strains of My Old Kentucky Home fill the air as is tradition.
Parading past her storied grandstand, jockeys in full mount, each led by grooms astride a stable mate, speak softly into equine ears. Soothing hands pat caresses over sleek and shiny necks. Soon, man and horse will thunder forward, hopefully to add their names to legend, Arcaro sitting high atop Citation, young Cauthen guiding a dauntless Affirmed or Turcotte's fastest ride of all upon a thundering Secretariat.
One by one handlers load their charges into the confining starting gate. Assuring hands and calming voices from their jockeys assure these regal beings that all is well. Some are soothed while others balk. At a moment just as this, we tend forget that even these, these thousands pounds of athlete, trained and primed, are but quivering masses of uncertainty. Slowly and assuredly man and horse settle to a rhythm, two hearts beat as one as man and horse become one being.
All goes quiet. In that instant the world is stopped. The planet ceases its rotation. And, then with a thunder, metal gates swing open and the field bursts toward glory. In a blur of colored silks and horse flesh the dash to immortality begins.
Sixteen poles mark Churchill's mile and a quarter. Seasoned riders, sitting high astride, at first ease back their mounts. Feel the pack. Judge the competition, always reassuring the horse that all is well. Decision time soon nears. Move to the rail or drift outside? Come to front or rely upon his heart to charge from deep within the pack? They fly with speed and there is peril with each step.
Dirt cakes deep on rider's goggles. Several pair sit upon each forehead. As each pair packs with mud, another quickly is exchanged. Moving to the backstretch horse and man are oblivious to a screaming throng already on its feet across the oval. Turning for the homestretch, riders reach for crops. Not so gentle urging tells the horse that time is of the essence. Jockeys now standing high with faces tucked beneath their horses ear, boots gripping stirrups with heels tightly digging. There is still uncertainty. Does the steed beneath me have a champion's heart?
The final pole is now in sight. Tightly gripping leather reins, riders feel massive hearts beating within massive chests and the sound of lungs gasping with each snort from fiery nostrils. Legs fly faster as they near the wire. They have bumped and pushed for nearly two minutes and now it comes to this. They approach the finish. There can be but a single jockey and his mount that will soon receive the rose filled garland in the winners circle. By a length or two, or even by a nose, one magnificent animal will soon begin preparing for the Preakness and a chance at the second leg of sports most coveted and elusive prize, The Triple Crown.