Kentucky Derby

John Clay: Derby Week a unique spectacle

Participants in the 2013 Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon/miniMarathon ran through the infield of Churchill Downs Saturday, April 27, 2013. Photo by Jonathan Palmer
Participants in the 2013 Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon/miniMarathon ran through the infield of Churchill Downs Saturday, April 27, 2013. Photo by Jonathan Palmer Herald-Leader

LOUISVILLE — You can feel it in the air.

Saturday morning, you could see it in the air.

At 7:15 a.m., taking I-64 West into Louisville, before the Watterson Expressway exit, you could count a dozen or so dots in the sky, entrants in the Great Balloon Race.

This is the week of "the race" in Louisville. It's Derby Week, ready for the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby, the greatest two minutes in sports and all that. There's more than "the race" as they will tell you, of course. It's a Derby Festival, complete with a Pegasus Parade and a steamboat race and a variety of other community events tied into that Derby walkover and call to the post come Saturday night.

This is also unlike any other sport, or big event, that we the media cover, from a variety of vantage points.

For starters, we don't go to a locker room to conduct interviews. We go to the barn.

And while in some cases the athletes in the locker room (or interview room) would rather not speak to the so-called fourth estate, the Kentucky Derby's leading characters, the ones that actually compete out on the track, don't have to worry about being misquoted. Even if they wanted to talk, they can't.

Here's another difference: Derby practices are open.

Most major sports make a concerted effort to keep peering eyes from viewing practices or workouts. Better to keep top-secret material from reaching the opposition.

Derby Week, Churchill Downs wants your average citizen to turn out and watch the horses stretch their legs in the morning when they "breeze" or "gallop" or "exercise" or do the real "work" in their race preparation.

Another difference between the Derby and other big events: weather.

Sure, weather conditions play a role in other sports, but not so much when it comes to practices. Football teams have indoor facilities, for example. (Mark Stoops made good use of the Nutter Field House during UK football's spring practice.) Horse racing does not. Either send your horse out in the rain, risking mishap, or keep the animal in the barn.

"My morning started at 12:57 when I made the mistake of waking up and looking at the radar on my phone," trainer Todd Pletcher said Saturday about the threat of rain after sending four of his Derby starters to the track. "(I) pretty much couldn't sleep very much after that."

With all Pletcher has to consider for his Derby Week, it's a wonder he sleeps at all. Most trainers dream of "a" legitimate Derby contender. Pletcher has five. At the risk of forgetting one, he trains (in alphabetical order) Charming Kitten, Overanalyze, Palace Malice, Revolutionary and probable favorite Verrazano.

Speaking of Pletcher, you know it is "Derby Week" when a trainer is brought from his barn to the Churchill Downs media center to answer questions. That doesn't happen much for other races. It happened Saturday with Pletcher.

Question: What do you think of the field?

"I think it's a little bit underrated, to be honest with you," he said. "I hear a lot of people saying it's kind of a weak 3-year-old crop, but there are some really good colts here right now and some of them look really, really good on the racetrack in the morning."

Of course, five horses mean five times the Derby Week worry. Pletcher has painful personal knowledge of that subject. He trained probable favorite Uncle Mo, who was scratched just before the 2011 Derby because of illness.

"I was saying to someone the other day, that's kind of the world we live in," Pletcher said. "You leave at 7 o'clock one night and hope everything is the same when you get there the next morning. And sometimes it's not. ... I think that's just part of being a horse trainer."

Yes, but these next seven days are different, as proven by the balloons in the sky and the mini-marathon runners weaving their way through the Churchill Downs infield as the horses galloped over the track on Saturday.

This is Derby Week.

"The stakes," admitted Pletcher, "are just a little higher."