2018 Kentucky Oaks & Derby: Thoughts, Opinions, Cheers, Jeers, & Soggy Leftovers

(Justify wins the 2018 Kentucky Derby in style / Photo by Holly M. Smith Photography)

The 2018 Kentucky Oaks and Derby are now in the record books. And, once again, there were record-breaking performances — both on the track and off of it. After all, it was the wettest Kentucky Derby in history — breaking the nearly 100-year-old previous high water mark of 2-plus inches by nearly an inch more moisture.

I knew it had to be a lot of water. I poured three-plus inches of H2O out of my boots; rung another two-plus inches of Fiji out of my shirt collar alone; and fished two guppies, an Asian carp family of four, and a sea bass out of my coat pockets. It was enough to start my own sushi bar right there along the rail.

As in most years, there were many great things to happen over the first weekend in May. And, as in most years, there were some things that, well, weren’t so good. So we have taken on the job of ranking some of the best, and some of the worst for your benefit.

Here’s a closer look:

4 Horseshoes Up:

(Justify winning the 2018 Kentucky Derby / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

  1. Justify: The brilliant son of Scat Daddy, trained by the world’s best horse conditioner in Bob Baffert, not only defeated 19 other colts on Saturday, he kicked the “Apollo Curse” right in the groin as he splashed to an amazingly easy victory over, arguably, one of the best fields ever assembled for the “Run for the Roses.” The big chestnut colt — who had run only three races in his lifetime coming into the Derby — ran like he was the most game, most experienced, most dynamic, and most talented colt to ever step up to the challenge of running 11/4-miles on the first Saturday in May. He looked the part all week, glistening every morning as he got his morning gallop and his daily bath. He acted the part, standing with ears pricked and watching the comings and goings of the Derby festival like he was to soon be the center of attention and every camera’s focused lens. And, he ran the part — setting fractions that would make a lesser man cringe and crumple and running away in the deep stretch with an ease that would make the world applaud and appreciate. Some people may scoff at the “Apollo Curse,” but there is a very real reason why no horse had won the Kentucky Derby having not made a single start as a 2-year-old for the past 134 years. And, it may be another 134 years before any horse can do it again, too. The reason is very simple. It is damn tough to do. But Justify not only made it look possible, he made it look doable. And, he made it look easy. In simple terms, Justify never looked in trouble; never looked in doubt; and always looked dominant. His style stood out on a gloomy and cloudy day like a flash of brilliance. Only time will tell us if he can join the Baffert-trained American Pharoah as the newest Triple Crown winners. But it looks like he has the right stuff to do just that.
  2. Bob Baffert: The colorful Californian is the best horse trainer in the land, and the best of his time. Now, he may soon become the best of all time. On Saturday, Baffert captured his fifth Kentucky Derby trophy and he is just one more Derby win away from tying the great Ben Jones as the all-time winningest Derby trainer. Sure, the man may get some of the most well-bred, gifted, and fastest Thoroughbreds to train. But the thing is that the man knows what to do once he gets them. Simply put, he knows how to train them. All the way to greatness. After watching him win the Derby with Silver Charm, and Real Quiet, and War Emblem, and the grand American Pharoah, you had to know that Baffert could train a Kentucky Derby winner. But he coached American Pharoah all the way to the Triple Crown — the first one of those in 37 years. If he wins the Preakness Stakes at Baltimore in less than two weeks now, he will have 14 wins in the Triple Crown — tying D. Wayne Lukas for the most ever. And, he has 14 wins in the Breeders’ Cup — which is second behind Lukas’ 20. If there was going to be a trainer to get a horse ready to win the Kentucky Derby without having made a start as a 2-year-old and break the “Apollo Curse” for the first time in 134 years, who would you have thought could do it? Baffert, right? Right. It would be Baffert. It would have to be Baffert.

(Artist rendition of the new Churchill Downs entrance area, which turned into reality this Derby)

     3. The Churchill Downs New Shuttle Service & Grand New Entrance: When I got my Derby tickets in the mail, and I heard about a new parking scheme which would require me to park my car over at the Louisville Fair Grounds and catch a shuttle bus over to the newly designed main entrance area, well, you could call me a skeptic. After all, I have been going to the Kentucky Derby for over 40 years, and I am rather stubborn in my ways. I must admit, I didn’t think I was going to like it. Not a little bit. But now that this ole’ dog has been taught a new trick, I hope that I never have to go back to the old days when I had to hunt down a parking space in someone’s muddy back yard and hoof my way to one of the track’s crowded, limited entry areas. Never. The racetrack — which has spent years buying up property around the racetrack with the specific idea of re-creating a new, innovative, stylish entryway that could accommodate hundreds of shuttle buses, and allow thousands of patrons to enter through one of many new terminals and turnstiles — hit a home run. On both Oaks and Derby days, I found my way to the Fair Grounds easily and without trouble. On both days, I found my way to a waiting bus without any trouble. And, I found the quick trip to the track was without hassle or stress. Once at the track, the newly designed entrance was both attractive and accommodating. In short, the whole, new experience was hassle free and comfortable. In short, it was a great improvement.

3 Horseshoes Up

  1. Good Magic: The winner of the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland in his final Derby prep and the 2017 Champ after winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last Fall, was spectacular in defeat and running a game second to the grand Justify. After stalking the pace throughout grueling early fractions, the son of Curlin looked poised and ready to pounce on the untested Justify at the top of the stretch. And, he did pounce — nearly rubbing shoulders with the eventual winner. And, he pounced again in mid-stretch, nearly pulling within a length of the gritty leader. And, he pounced one last time late, grinding every last gear to muster the energy and strength for one final try. But he could never conquer. Still, the colt proved his championship class by never wilting and always trying. Right to the finish of the 11/4-mile endurance test. There are no moral victories in horse racing. Just winners and losers. But Good Magic was glorious in defying defeat, even while second.

(The glorious Monomoy Girl / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

     2. Monomoy Girl: This glorious filly had every reason to find a way to lose the Kentucky Oaks. She drew the extremely wide, #14 hole, which is one of the most difficult spots to start a race going 11/8-miles at Churchill Downs. She was pushed wide going into the first turn. She was pushed along through tough early fractions. And, then she was hooked at the 1/4 pole leaving the final turn by the super game Wonder Gadot and was pushed all the way to the wire in one of the most fierce and frantic stretch duels in the 144-year history of the 11/8-mile grind of the Kentucky Oaks. Through it all, to the final strides, Monomoy Girl found a way to win; not a reason to whine. She found a way to win — deep down inside that beautiful body of hers. She found a way to win. She found a way to win spectacularly.

3. Travis Stone: The race caller at Churchill Downs did a remarkable, amazing, astonishing job of calling his year’s Kentucky Derby at Churchill Drowns, er, Downs. Saddle cloths looked more like mud flaps. Silks looked more like jerseys in a mud-wrestling contest. And, every horse — no matter what color God and heritage gave them at birth — looked like a dark bay covered with chocolate. Still, Mr. Stone rocked it. He called each horse with aplomb and accuracy. He called every horse from front runner to late trailer. And, he caught every significant move with pin-point judgment. Calling a race with 20 horses in it is difficult in its own right. Calling a race with 20 horses tromping through a mud bath is darn near impossible. But Travis Stone was nearly as perfect as Justify. Spot on.

2 Horseshoes Up:

(Justify with rider Mike Smith in the saddle / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

  1. Mike Smith: “Big Money Mike” has become the best rider in the game today, especially when it comes to some of the industry’s most prestigious and glamorous events. The 2018 Kentucky Derby became the latest example. Smith guided Justify away from the starting gate and to a perfect stalking position early in this year’s Derby, just outside the front-running speed of Promises Fulfilled. Along the backside, Smith moved his horse just a few spots wider to allow the splashing mud to bypass his steed and allow his inexperienced horse the best possible spot to both see and run, unimpeded. And, just when it appeared that it was time to run on, Smith told his talented colt to go. And, the two of them ran. Fast. Furious. And to the final destination in front and in style. A good jockey gives his horse the best chance to win. A great jockey gives his horse the best opportunity to win. The world’s best jockey gives his horse every chance and opportunity to win. And, more often than not, they do.
  2. Florent Geroux: He rode Monomoy Girl to victory in the Kentucky Oaks, holding off the gutty Wonder Gadot and withstanding a ridiculous claim of foul of jockey John Velazquez, who rode the runner-up. Geroux — who gained both fame and fortune while riding the grand Champion Gun Runner a year ago — called on every talent, every little wiggle and whistle, and every shake of his hands and whip to get is filly from the #14 post to the #1 finish. He was spectacular.
  3. The Churchill Downs’ Grounds, Maintenance & Cleanup Crews: On Thursday, the track hosted a crowd of over 50,000 for “Thurby.” On Friday, the track hosted a crowd of over $118,000 for the Kentucky Oaks card. On Saturday, the track hosted a crowd of over $157,000 for the Kentucky Derby in a steady, fire hydrant rain storm that  turned the track into a mudpit and every Louisville weatherman into a liar. Every day, when a customer walked onto the grounds, the place was spotless. The trash was gone, replaced by beauty and cleanliness. The displaced chairs were hustled back into place and were buffed clean. The attendants from front door to beer vendor were courteous and smiling. Name me one other sporting venue in the world that can handle  over 320,000 people in three days and do it with the style of Churchill Downs. Name me one. Just one. Don’t bother. You can’t. The track is amazing.

1 Horshoe Up:

(The backside hospitality tent sponsored by Keeneland & Lane’s End Farm)

  1. Keeneland/Lane’s End Farm: This year the team of Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington and the famed Lane’s End Farm in Versailles co-sponosred a hospitality tent along the backside at Churchill Downs to host horsemen and women and provide warm food and drink every morning leading up to the 2018 Kentucky Derby. It was a wonderful and accommodating location. It soon turned into the place to be for everyone in the horse business, especially the connections tired to the Derby. If you wanted to see the horses on the track, it was the place to be, for sure. But if you wanted to see trainers like Chad Brown and Steve Asmussen, it was the place to be. If you wanted to see breeders like Gov. Brereton C. Jones and his son, Brett, it was the place to be. If you wanted to see Churchill Downs racing officials, like Chief Executive Officer Bill Carstanjen, it was the place to be. But it was great to see the collaboration of some of Kentucky’s racing icons join together and provide a world-class venue for all to enjoy and socialize. It was a warm place to go on a cold morning, to be sure. But it was heart-warming to see Lane’s End President Bill Farish, and Keeneland’s top officials Bill Thomason, Robert Elliston and Vince Gabbert reach out to assist their friends at Churchill Downs. It was great to see, witness, and use.
(My Miss Lilly captured by Holly M. Smith)

2. Holly M. Smith: Going into this year’s Derby week, I didn’t even know Holly M. Smith. But midweek, when looking for some outstanding photographs to add to the site, I was introduced to her work as an equine photographer by my good friend Ed DeRosa, the Director of Marketing at Bristnet. Little did I know that Holly would take some of the most striking photos I have ever seen in my 60-some years of being around horses. She is a world class talent. World class. 

Tomorrow will come the “Horseshoes Down” 




Once he got to the horses on the lead I just tried to keep him busy down the lane and he kicked pretty good. I didn’t ride him last time but he way he ran today he was definitely impressive. [The distance] didn’t seem to bother him at all. I think the farther he goes the better he gets.”

John Velazquez, Rider of Florida Derby winner Audible
  • Gene McLean

    Gene McLean

    Gene McLean began his professional career in 1977 as a sportswriter and columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., and was recognized as one of the state’s best writers, winning the prestigious “Sportswriter of the Year” honor in 1985. Now the President and Publisher of The Pressbox, McLean sets ...

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