(Miss Jacqueline got her first — and only, so far — race at Churchill Downs last November. We had friends and family on hand to witness the occasion. As you can see (that’s Miss Jacqueline way out there in front), it turned out to be a lot of fun for all. Especially for my much surprised and shocked wife, Leigh Ann. She has been to watch our horses run many times. She has witnessed gloom, despair and agony on more occasions than not. But not this day. This day was our first win at Churchill Downs. Ever. This was our “Feel-Good Day.”/ Photos by Mark Deno)
It was a soggy November day when we loaded up the crew and headed to Churchill Downs to watch our 2YO filly Miss Jacqueline race for the first time. You know the kind of day. Wind zipped through the air like a Swiss Army Knife. Mist filled your bones like a brain freeze that you get when drinking a Mr. Misty. Clouds camouflaged anything that resembled a round ball of sunlight.
But we bundled down; layered up; and poured a little anti-freeze in the old pipes and headed out to the track with a ray of hope, if not sunshine.
We met our great friends, Greg and Ronda Schnell in the corporate box. Joining us were Mark Deno and Tim Moman, two Twitter buddies whom I had never met before in person but had heard so much about. I soon found out they would become “the rest of this life-long friends.” And, we picked up a random straggler or two along the walk in, too.
We ate a little lunch. We drank a little punch. We bet a few races. We chatted and passed the time. All the while, though, I paced.
On race day, I pace.
Back and forth.
To and fro.
This way and that.
Doesn’t matter where I’m going, mind you. Just matters that I am going.
I had bred Miss Jacqueline and now own her with great friends Tina Halpain and Jace Barbin. Tina and Jace were in Texas and California, respectively. Tuned in to the TV. But me and my gang were on location. Ready. Willing. Able.
We were just hoping that Miss Jacqueline would be. At least, two out of those three.
It wasn’t long before the entourage made its’ way to the paddock — like a 5-year-old soccer team. In a little bee hive. We met up with trainer Stephen Lyster. Chatted with paddock host Ed DeRosa. And, roamed.
On race day, I roam.
Back and forth. To and fro. This way and that. Doesn’t matter where I’m going, mind you. Just matters that I am going.
We drew the #12 post in a field of 12. Luckily, in a way, a horse scratched to our inside and another filly on the AE List drew in and took the outside position. I never want to be the first horse or the last horse in the gate with a first time starter. Like to have a few bumpers to rail us in.
As the horses headed from the paddock to the track, I trailed behind and waited for our trainer. “What do you think?” I asked. Stephen, always the talkative sort, kind of shrugged his shoulders and said, “I think we have a chance.”
I grinned. If not on the outside, at least on the inside.
You have to read between the lines with horse trainers. They condition their words about as much as they do their horses. And, when they put them in the starting gate and let them loose? The words run together just a little bit. You have to learn how to separate them and read between the lines.
“I think we have a chance,” means that “Gene McLean can bet.”
At least, in my ears, that is what I heard.
And, on this day, I really could. And, I really did.
Miss Jacqueline got an expert ride from one of the best in Julien Leparoux. Despite going the first quarter mile in a very brisk :21 & change, the filly had plenty left for what was left in the stretch. And, the rider had plenty of skill to get her where we all wanted to go. Heaven on earth.
At the quarter pole, Miss J and Julien began to pull away.
We all jumped and screamed.
At the 1/8th pole, they were suddenly ahead by 4 or 5 lengths and looking for more.
We all jumped a bit higher and screamed a bit more.
With 100 yards to go, Miss Jacqueline was kicking ass and taking no names.
When I looked over to take a glimpse of Leigh Ann, I saw her doing her best Graves County Eagles’ cheerleading jumping jack.
I caught a view of Greg and Ronda celebrating.
I witnessed new friends Tim and Mark high-fiving.
It was racing as it was meant to be. It was racing as I always wanted it to be.
We all jumped, danced, hugged, and laughed. And, of course, we screamed a little more. It was before we knew of the words “social distancing.” Or gave a damn about the concept of “social distancing.”
It was the first race I had ever won at Churchill Downs. The same track that my mother grew up around, and peddled her bicycle over. The same track where they hold the world’s greatest sporting event ever — the Kentucky Derby. The track where I always envisioned I would stand one day in the winner’s circle.
This was the day.
This was my feel-good day.