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HRN Original Blog:
Around the Oval with Melaina Phipps

Footprints and Crossed Paths at Churchill Downs

 
My iPhone took this photo accidentally, but it's a good reflection of my Derby weekend experience. Lots of walking! It was my first time spending the First Saturday in May at Churchill Downs, and it really was unforgettable. Some of those footprints are actually mine—walking the track from the backstretch to the paddock with a trainer friend whose horse ran that weekend. Great racing, good stories, and wonderful company, and two friends closely connected to Derby Winner Animal Kingdom; I couldn’t have designed a better time.

The weekend was not without glitches of course, but these clouds also came with their own silver linings. One of these came Kentucky Oaks afternoon. I parted ways with one of my companions with plans to meet up later. No problem, we’d get in touch by phone of course. Well, my phone died from the nonstop calling, texting, tweeting, photo-snapping, and updating that needed to be done. Getting a hold of each other became quite a challenge after that, but while walking all of Churchill Downs I encountered a very interesting cast of characters, each of whom left their own footprints on the paths to and from the betting window, mint julep bar, horseman’s lounge, and paddock. The following are some of the new acquaintances I made over the weekend.

The Vegas Gal-Pals
These two beautiful senior ladies (and—honestly—former showgirls) leave their retired husbands in Las Vegas and come to Louisville every year making the Oaks and Derby weekend their girlfriends’ escape.  With all the gambling in Vegas, the one thing they can’t bet on live is a horse. There are no racetracks in the whole state of Nevada and well, betting on the Derby at the sports book at the Bellagio just isn’t the same. These women know their horses, study the PPs and enjoy mint juleps and spending their winnings out on the town after a day at Churchill.

The Double-Birthday, Double-Date, Derby Weekend
Up in the Sky 5 Lounge sipping the Oaks signature drinks (the Lily and the Fleur de Lis) I met other visitors from Texas. Two couples who had never been to the Derby and who don’t regularly follow horseracing, traveled all the way to Kentucky because they thought it would be a great way to celebrate the men’s fortieth birthdays. Which both happen to fall on Derby day, May 7. I couldn’t agree more with their choice of destination!

The Security Guard
One of the things I always find interesting is meeting a local who has never experienced the traditions of their city. Mind you, I should
not find this interesting or at all surprising; I grew up in New York and only visited the top of the Empire State Building when out-of-town guests requested it! That first weekend in May, I met a security guard, a woman, who was so very excited to be working that weekend just to be present at the Derby. She admitted to me that her fascination with horse racing was a primary motivator to work at the Twin Spires. Nice work.

The Outrider
This woman was astounding. A career outrider, she walked and/or rode the backstretch and the track with the authority of her experience, sharp and alert she was prepared to handle any and everything that should come her way. Still, will all on her plate and her mind on this busiest of Churchill weekends, she still took out time to share a story and give a tip to a Derby novice. Thank you!

The Cowboy/Jockey/Horse Trader/Trainer
A cowboy at heart, this man had been working with horses since before my time. We began talking about the day’s races and from there went on to discuss everything from betting to books to city living before wrapping up our conversation with a mint julep and talk of bourbon preferences.

Often we limit our conversation to the convenient or obvious topics. We usually get what we expect—and that’s not bad at all on Derby weekend. We’re all there for the horses, for the races, for the most exciting two minutes in sports. But still, what a happy surprise to find other mutual topics of interest and shared common ground with veritable strangers. Strangers no longer, they are now welcoming, friendly faces in the crowd.

 

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Older Comments about Footprints and Crossed Paths at Churchill Downs...

It's the only sport where the fan chooses to become a participant every half hour. Consequently there is a sense of comeraderie among the attendees unlike other sports where often the attendees are adversarial due to their allegience. For someone who is relatively 'new' to horse racing, you have picked up on an aspect of the sport that long-time fans overlook . . . we're ALL in it together!
A "railbird" in the making, you are. Did you cash any tickets? Sounded like my Preakness experience - lots of personalities!
  • MBPhipps · I am a bit of railbird, it's true. :-) I did cash one ticket, but truthfully did not bet much. Between the horses and the people I barely had time to make it to the window! · 1236 days ago
Ahhh the characters of the racetrack,and the Derby to boot ... retired showgirls, who leave their hubbies at home ... love it!
Great stories! I'm always interested in watching the outriders and "behind the scene" workers who go about their daily routines so prefessionally. The social aspects at horse races are so much fun, there's always new, interesting people I meet.
  • MBPhipps · I've never been terribly shy and tend to meet new people wherever I go, but the track has so many like-minded people I think the chances increase exponentially! Two of my now good friends for over 5 years now I met at Saratoga--one at breakfast at the track and one at Siro's after racing. You really never know what friendships might be found among the crowd of faces! · 1242 days ago
Great stories! I'm always interested to watch the outriders and

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Meet Melaina Phipps

I came to horseracing only about a decade ago. (And no, I am no relation to the celebrated racing family of the same name.) My equine interests prior to that began, as they do for most young girls, with riding lessons and horse shows, and ended up with me playing polo while a graduate student at UVA and thereafter. It was entirely unexpected that I should spend time on the backstretch at Saratoga in the summer and on the rail at Payson Park in Florida in the winter watching some of the best trainers and horses in the country work. But that’s where I found myself and where my interest in this wild ride of an industry took shape. I don’t exercise racehorses; I don’t work with a trainer.  I watch, I listen, I ask a lot of questions, and I learn.  I enjoy supporting equine charities. Sometimes I bet a little.

I leave the handicapping and serious race talk and examination to those more knowledgeable than I. What I’d like to share through Around the Oval are some of the myriad observations, stories, histories, events, charities, places, and personalities that make up the variegated landscape of the Thoroughbred racing industry. If you find any—or all—of it interesting, please leave comments. Have any particular interests you’d like to read about? Send word—suggestions are more than welcome!