The Ultimate Insider's View of Horse Racing at Kentucky Derby Museum's Fan Fest – America's Best Racing

May 4, 2019 - Comment

It’s one of the most thrilling two minutes in sports. Heart pounding. Awe inspiring. Beautiful. Historical.  Full of pageantry. The call to the post. A cheering crowd. The horses prancing “on their toes” as their game-faced jockeys calmly ride them to the starting gate. The huge wave of emotion as the crowd sings “My Old

It’s one of the most thrilling two minutes in sports. Heart pounding. Awe inspiring. Beautiful. Historical.  Full of pageantry. The call to the post. A cheering crowd. The horses prancing “on their toes” as their game-faced jockeys calmly ride them to the starting gate. The huge wave of emotion as the crowd sings “My Old Kentucky Home” with their mint juleps hoisted or their hand over their heart. When one experiences the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, one is surrounded by history. There simply is nothing else like it in the world.

If you can’t be at the Derby, the closest you can get is to go to the Kentucky Derby Museum. As you step through the starting gate, the museum immerses you into the history and excitement of the Derby. To enhance this experience during Derby week, the Derby Museum hosts “Fan Fest” with special moments for fans, friends, families, history lovers, horse lovers and bourbon lovers. It is a dazzling day full of opportunities for fans to mingle with horse racing celebrities while enjoying an intimate insider view into the world of horse racing.

Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day opened the morning entertaining a large crowd trackside with stories about his career. He is the all-time leading rider at Churchill Downs and won the Kentucky Derby in 1992 on the longshot Lil E. Tee. He has many stories about his 22 rides in the Derby and high praise for Easy Goer as “the best horse I ever rode.” 

Inside the Museum, a “Junior Jockey Zone” was a beehive of activity. Kids were getting their faces painted. It was very tempting to sit down with them and try my hand at the horse paint-by-number sets. I also paused and contemplated how fun it would be to decorate a lucky horseshoe.  Author Nancy Pruitt read her book “Milly the Filly.”  It was an honor to meet Jennifer Kelly, author of “Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown.” I had to add her autographed book to my horse racing library. Many fans flocked upstairs to take their photo with the Triple Crown Trophy. I must admit that I was one of them! There were smiles after smiles as we posed next to the stunning trophy.

Horse racing fans are amazing. They are extremely astute when it comes to racing history down to the minute details. They easily rattle off sires and pedigrees. When they got the chance to listen to trainer Bob Baffert, jockey Mike Smith and WinStar Farm’s Elliott Walden, they filled the great hall. You could have heard a pin drop as TV personality Caton Bredar led them through a discussion of Justify’s Triple Crown campaign. 

The stories were intimate and amazing. Mike Smith said that early one morning he took a phone call from Baffert. He asked him if he would like to come down to the track to ride Justify. Mike said he had never been on Justify before other than in races. He told Bob he was in his pajamas and would be there in a couple of minutes. When he arrived, Bob had Justify tacked up in a western saddle. Bob was on his horse and Justify was waiting for Smith. They went out for a nice quiet ride at Del Mar. Mike said no one was there. It was glorious and a chance to enjoy a peaceful moment with the Triple Crown winner. 

Justify’s western saddle was a custom-made Usher rope saddle. It is featured in the new “Justify and the Century of the Crown” exhibit at the museum. When Baffert leaned forward to tell another story, everyone in the crowd leaned forward to hear him. They knew this was going to be a good one because Bob had that “this is a good one” grin on his face. (One could say he had a twinkle in his eye, but we never know because of his tinted glasses!) 

Bob presented a photo taken of him, wife Jill and son Bode standing with Justify in his western tack. Justify is so calm and looked like he came from a western movie set. He sent the photo to fellow Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas saying, “Check out my new pony!” Lukas replied, “He looks a little light!” Then Baffert retorted that he will be the only one on the track with a Triple Crown pony! It was a great joke!

Rachel Collier is the interim Communications Director at the Kentucky Derby Museum. She proudly wore a fabulous red jacket and met guests as they arrived at the museum. “One of my favorite parts about the Kentucky Derby Museum is asking our visitors, ‘Where are you from and what brought you here?!’” she said. “Everyone wants to get a piece of the experience that is the one and only Kentucky Derby. I’m so proud of my hometown and seeing all the visitors coming through the doors for Fan Fest on Sunday blew me away. So much enthusiasm! It was a great day for the whole family, general admission price into the Kentucky Derby Museum but with a bunch of extra bonuses, like a legendary panel. Incredible! What a rare opportunity for our guests to experience.”

Why do we go to museums? They honor history. They fan the flames of our dreams and they provide us an opportunity to experience something new or and welcome us to something familiar. It means so much to wander through the Kentucky Derby museum and marvel at the rich history of the Kentucky Derby. The stories are endless. 

After watching “The Greatest Race” (which is a yearly ritual for Derby fans), I made my way to the new D. Wayne Lukas exhibit. You are greeted with a photo of Lukas on horseback at the track. It fills the room with his presence, and he is larger than life. The room features some of his 1,200 trophies, awards, artwork and personal mementos. It includes his four Kentucky Derby trophies and rings. The last time I saw his trophies, they were lined up side by side in the basement Derby vault. It was stunning to see them gracefully in the light. I was drawn to a small silver vase flanked by elegant flamingoes. It was sitting with his Eclipse Awards and I couldn’t read the inscription.

I went to his barn and asked him if he remembered the trophy. He lowered his head for a second then looked up as he softened his voice. “That was my son’s Jeff personal horse that won that in a prep for the Derby. It’s a special one. That’s a special trophy.” Jeff Lukas owned Badger Land along with his Dad and Mel Hatley. He won the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah Park in February 1986. Unfortunately, Lukas’s son Jeff passed away in 2016, and a portion of the exhibit is dedicated to him. Sometimes something reaches out to you when you are walking through an exhibit. This simple silver trophy caught my eye and I knew it was something significant.    

Every artifact has a story. Every race has a cast of characters and a rich history. The run for the roses is one of the most amazing experiences in all of horse racing. There are lots of fans who arrange their Derby trip so that they are in town for the Kentucky Derby Museum’s Fan Fest.  It’s a chance to personally meet horse racing celebrities and the opportunity to revel in the rich history of the Derby. The museum opens the door to the Derby all year round. It’s a trip worth making whether you live locally or come from afar. Fan Fest just keeps getting better and better! I am already looking forward to next year!

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