Still life with horse

War Emblem jockey Victor Espinoza had simple instructions for the Kentucky Derby: Don't do anything. He didn't, and the colt went wire to wire.

Topics: Horse racing,

Security was so tight at the Kentucky Derby that the winning jockey needed help getting to the barn Saturday morning. Victor Espinoza eventually made it to trainer Bob Baffert’s side with the assistance of a friendly guard, and the conversation the two horsemen had there helped War Emblem, with Espinoza up, become the first wire-to-wire Derby winner in 14 years.

Here’s what Baffert, the glib, white-haired trainer who had back-to-back Derby winners in 1997 and ’98, told his jockey: Sit still. Baffert showed Espinoza a tape of the April 6 Illinois Derby, in which War Emblem trounced then-Derby favorite Repent. “He wanted to show me, it’s going to be my first blind date because I’ve never seen this horse before,” Espinoza said. Baffert told him the big dark brown colt likes a quiet jockey. “Just don’t move until the last minute, he told me probably 100 times,” Espinoza said. “Finally, I listened to him.”

War Emblem, who went off at 20.5-1, broke cleanly, stepped into the lead ahead of Proud Citizen (23-1) and — well, that was that. The most wide-open race in Kentucky Derby history, a race with a favorite who went off at a record-high price of 6-1, turned into a race with no turning points, no dramatic moments, other than the one when War Emblem began to pull away at midstretch and the 145,033 spectators realized what was happening.

War Emblem, Proud Citizen and Perfect Drift had broken into the lead, along with Came Home, who briefly had third place ahead of Perfect Drift. They had gone around the track 1-2-3, in that order except when Perfect Drift put his nose ahead of Proud Citizen for a few strides around the mile mark, and were about to finish 1-2-3. War Emblem won by four lengths and paid $43 to win. A speed horse, he ran the mile and a quarter in a pokey 2:01.13 on a fast track. Came Home finished sixth.

Harlan’s Holiday, the favorite if such a word can be used for a 6-1 pick, was seventh. The public’s second choice, Saarland, at 7-1, was 10th. Medaglia d’Oro, also 7-1, was fourth. The mysterious Irish speed horse Johannesburg, the winner of the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile last year but beaten in his only race as a 3-year-old, was eighth. None were a factor.

“It’s kind of typical for me and I think any other rider when he’s in the front, you’re so excited that you can’t wait to let it go, the horse,” Espinoza said of holding back, “but I [thought], it’s a long stretch, so I had to be patient.”

War Emblem appeared to veer into the path of third-place finisher Perfect Drift at the top of the stretch, but jockey Eddie Delahoussaye declined to file an objection. “No, because he [Espinoza] had so much horse,” Delahoussaye said. “If he’d have beaten me a neck or something like that, then I’d say, well, I have a legitimate claim, but his horse just drew away. My horse ran good, but they were going too slow and my horse needs pace. That horse had his way all the way around there, nice and easy, and he kept going.”

Nice and easy is just how Baffert had wanted it. “I told him if he was in front at the top of the stretch, don’t panic,” he said. Then he said he told his jockey to keep still until an eighth of a mile from the finish, unless horses were passing him like crazy. Only at that point should he go to the whip. “He did, he just sat quiet. I just can’t imagine what was going through his mind. He just showed so much poise.”

Baffert, who is something of a character and not widely liked on the thoroughbred scene, according to those who know about such things, caused a stir Derby week by first saying he wasn’t going to enter another colt, Danthebluegrassman, and then entering him at the last moment Wednesday. That knocked Windward Passage, a horse many thought was more deserving of a run for the roses, out of the Derby. The irritation of that horse’s owners could only have increased Saturday morning when Danthebluegrassman was scratched because he was “tying up,” a track term referring to tightening muscles, for which muscle relaxers were administered.

There was also some grumbling about the way Baffert came to train War Emblem, less than a month before the Derby. Following the Illinois Derby win, he convinced Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman, who’s been trying for a Derby winner for years, to buy the horse after his owners expressed doubt about entering him in the Derby. Up to that point it had looked as though Baffert’s six-year streak of saddling Derby entrants would end. Baffert has joked that this has been the shortest and easiest training job of his life, but he bristled at the suggestion that there was anything untoward about his route to this year’s Winner’s Circle, a trip that moved him into a three-way tie for fourth place on the all-time Derby winners list.

“I know a lot of people felt, well, it’s not the fair way to come into a Derby, but believe me, this is my livelihood, this is how I make my living,” he said, the clear meaning being that he wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth with so many mouths to feed, in the sense of both family and employees.

His benefactor was even more clear. Asked if it was right to “buy the Derby,” the gregarious Prince Ahmed’s eyes got wide. “Everybody buys the Derby!” he said. “Because you have to buy a horse. Isn’t that buying? If you tell me whos going to win, Ill buy it again.”

If the Derby is two minutes of excitement surrounded by a hundred thousand parties, and let’s just say it is, and the most exclusive of those parties is in the Winner’s Circle, where Prince Ahmed dedicated his victory to the Saudi people, adding “and I love you guys in America,” then the least exclusive one is mere steps away, in the infield.

There, $40 gets you into a very different scene, one where silk dresses and elaborately feathered hats give way to a uniform of shorts, T-shirts (or not, for boys), sunburned skin and glassy eyes.

“It’s a nice post-exam party weekend,” said Jenna Foppiani, a 21-year-old junior at Vanderbilt University, shortly after ignoring the sixth race on the Jumbotron screen that looms over the backstretch. Foppiani, who drove up from Nashville with her friends after finals for the second straight year, said the massive post-9/11 security, which put the kibosh on all cans and bottles and filled Churchill Downs with uniformed cops and soldiers, hadn’t affected the scene much. The mostly college-age kids had shown plenty of ingenuity in sneaking things in, she said. As if to emphasize her point, a college boy behind her stumbled over a chair, staggered to his feet and toppled over again.

“People seem more clothed this year,” Foppiani said, noting that it was still relatively early in the day, though the weather was pleasantly warm. “Possibly later on in the Derby the clothing will fall. I don’t know.”

But a mere minutes later, about two and a half hours before Derby post time, a probation officer from Florida revealed her ample breasts, and then her thong underwear, to a crowd of boys who rewarded her with Mardi Gras-style beads. That sort of thing hadn’t been as much in evidence this year as usual, according to several fans. So why’d she do it?

“Just for the hell of it,” she said. “I’m 32, I’m gettin’ old, nobody knows me here, you know. We’re on vacation. We’re having a good time.” Asked what she likes about the Derby, she said, “The drinkin’, the bettin’, watchin’ the horses, it’s all good. I like to see the famous people hanging out up on Millionaires’ Row.”

Everybody likes to see famous people. Trouble is, all those polished, sweet-smelling rich people in the grandstand look vaguely like B-list celebrities. Is that guy on a soap opera I don’t watch, or is he just a tan guy in a nice suit?

A man leaning over the paddock rail before an undercard race had the same problem. Holding his camera up to the various swells milling around, he yelled, “Any of y’all famous?” Nobody was. Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, in a white suit as bright as this cloudless spring day, wouldn’t make his appearance in the paddock until Derby time.

At the post, none of the 18 horses about to run the Derby were famous either, outside the small world of thoroughbred racing experts. If the wise guys, unimpressed by the slow pace and lack of intrigue, are right, even Saturday’s winner won’t be famous for long. But War Emblem has already done plenty for those who picked him to win, including, presumably, that security guard who helped Espinoza navigate the newly locked-down Churchill Downs Saturday morning.

“He said, ‘The only reason I take you is: only if you win,’” Espinoza said. “I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’ll be all right. It’s 20-1. You’ll make plenty of money.’”

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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