The Kentucky Derby (GI) is loaded with history and tradition, from the red roses symbolic of The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports, the Twin Spires, My Old Kentucky Home, fancy hats, Mint Juleps, Derby parties, wise guy horses, and throngs of media… the list of traditions goes on and on. But one of the most special traditions that isn’t talked about much could be the biggest tradition of all — The Walk.
The connections of only 20 horses each year will make the Kentucky Derby starting gate and, by doing so, they also participate in one of the greatest and most goosebump-inducing traditions. As the field makes its way from the Churchill Downs barn area to the paddock in front of more than 140,000 cheering fans, the enormity of the accomplishment in what it took to get there kicks in.
The Walk is nearly as important as the race itself.
I made The Walk once. And though someday I hope to do it again, it’s also something I won’t ever forget. That day changed my life forever in more ways than one and while it didn’t exactly have a perfect ending, I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything.
In early spring, 13 years ago, I was beyond excited to cover all things Derby coming out of California. I had lived in Kentucky. I had been to the Derby. I had even written about the Derby. But, in 2004, the West Coast had some really amazing horses prepping, including the previous year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) winner and runner-up, stablemates Action This Day and Minister Eric, Grade I winner Lion Heart and the up-and-coming Imperialism. When 2004 began, I had no idea that the relationships I created would lead to lifelong friendships and, most especially, one very special dog.
I suppose I need to back up a little.
In late 2003, a little chestnut with a big heart but a bad attitude named Lion Heart shipped West from New York and would make a name for himself winning the Hollywood Prevue (GIII) and then the Hollywood Futurity (GI), securing a spot in the Derby gate long before the new year had come. Trained by a Frenchman with a bit of an up-and-down reputation named Patrick Biancone, I decided in early 2004 to test my struggling French skills and head over to his Santa Anita shedrow to meet Lion Heart and find out the Kentucky Derby plan.
Before I could even get into the door I was greeted by a very hairy black-and-white-and-tan dog with marble eyes and a smile on his face. The dog wiggled over to me and sat down, as if to introduce himself. Just as I leaned down to pet him, I heard a French-accented voice call out from somewhere behind me.
“That’s Sigh, he’s Tom’s dog.”
I looked around, seeing nobody. “Tom?” I asked into the wind.
“Yes, he’s Lion Heart’s groom. You are here to see Lion Heart, no?”
“I am, yes.”
So, in an effort to find this mysterious “Tom,” I made my way down the shedrow looking at all the horses lined up waiting to be fed, the little swirly-colored dog following close behind, both of us looking for anyone who looked like we should stop for. When Sigh the Dog darted past me and scooted up to someone, I figured I’d found who I was looking for.
“You must be Tom,” I said.
“You must be here to see Lion Heart,” he said.
“OK, follow me. I hope the dog doesn’t bother you.”
Bother me? I had never seen such an amazing creature and was happy to have the company as I asked my awkward questions about Lion Heart. Tom, I found out, was a lifelong horseman and, at nearly 30, had dreams of becoming a trainer. I never had a brother, but if I were to guess what he’d look like I’d say Tom was pretty close to what I would have pictured.
I was soon monitoring Lion Heart’s every move down the Triple Crown Trail — gallops and works and schooling and races. Tom and I easily forged a strong friendship that surrounded both the horse and the dog. Tom stayed in a tack room, never wanting to be very far from Lion Heart, and Sigh the Dog was the barn security, both from unwanted intruders at night and rats and mice during the day. Sigh was an Australian Shepherd and a conformation champion, too. But he was also a racetrack/farm dog. I thought he was simply wonderful. I had heard Aussies were hyper and loud, but not Sigh. He was smart. Smarter than most people I’d met. Kinder too.
As we built our friendship, I soon became an unofficial member of Tom’s family. I met the entire clan and helped them all plan trips to Louisville and the Kentucky Derby, where Lion Heart was one of the runners to beat. And I was occasionally “stealing” Sigh the Dog to spend time with me as much as I could.
Early 2004 also produced the early stages of another lifelong friendship forged under odd circumstances. A young, shy trainer with a pedigree steeped in thoroughbred racing burst onto the racing scene when her charge, Imperialism, upset the field in the now-defunct San Rafael Stakes (GII) after being purchased privately out of Florida just a couple weeks earlier. The only things anyone really knew about her was that she was 21, a trainer’s daughter and an accomplished equestrian, who had her eyes focused on the Olympics at one point. And she was shy, so completely opposite of me. She’d won races, even graded stakes, but hadn’t had a national star up to that point.
One day that spring I wandered into her Hollywood Park shedrow and asked the first person I saw where the boss was. He simply pointed to a stall, two down from the end of the row and motioned in that direction. As I made my way toward the open stall door, noticing that only the top of the webbing was snapped, I could hear a voice, kind and gentle and talking to someone. When I reached the stall door I saw a large, gray horse lying on his side with a blonde girl leaning against him, propped in between his front legs and his back legs having a conversation.
I introduced myself and she told me her name was Kristin Mulhall and the horse she was hanging out with was Imperialism. I had never seen anything like it in my life — and only once since: a racehorse likely headed to the Kentucky Derby napping on the straw and cuddled up with its trainer, content like a giant Great Dane. Kristin got up to officially introduce me to Imperialism and, after he rose and made his way toward me, I noticed he had an oddly shaped head.
“He was born like that,” Kristin said. “His knee was probably up his against his face in the womb and made the permanent dent. Just don’t let him know you’re looking at it. He’s a little shy about it.”
I became a regular visitor to Kristin’s barn both at Hollywood and also when she was onsite at Santa Anita. We’d sometimes have lunch and we talked about horses, but also anything and everything friends talk about.
I was also visiting Biancone’s barn and Tom and Sigh The Dog daily.
By the last week of April, Lion Heart, Tom and his entire family and I, as well as Kristin and Imperialism and her entire family, had all made it to Louisville.
Imperialism finished a strong second in the Santa Anita Derby (GI) while Lion Heart skipped the race in favor of his runner-up Blue Grass Stakes (GI) performance.
Like some sort of a dream, it all came together for my new friends and I was happily — albeit unexpectedly — along for the ride. At Churchill Downs I had easy access to both Lion Heart and Imperialism that nobody else had. I met Michael Dickinson and eventual top sire Tapit, saw Nick Zito for the first time in several years, sat next to John Servis at the trainer’s dinner, went to parties, wrote a lot of stories, never slept and had a complete Kentucky Derby experience.
On the big day and after most of the day’s races had been run and my deadlines were met, I raced to the Churchill Downs backstretch just before the Turf Classic (GI) one race prior to the main event to check on my friends and the horses. I quickly checked Tom’s new suit and straightened his tie. He told me he and the horse were ready.
And as I made my way out of the barn to see Kristin, Biancone stopped me.
“Do you have your paddock pass?” He asked.
“No, I didn’t even think about it,” I said, not really comprehending what he meant.
“Here,” he said, as he handed me a lanyard with a blue tag and a number on it. “Don’t be late.”
I was in such a hurry to get to Kristin’s barn to wish her luck, I didn’t realize yet what I had in my hand.
Kristin was all dressed up and almost unrecognizable not wearing her familiar paddock boots and jeans. But she looked great and was surprisingly cool as a cucumber, much cooler than I was.
“I have a pass for you, you need to be with us,” she said just as she noticed the one Biancone had just put in my hand. “Oh good, you got one. OK, I can give this to my brother for one of his friends. Let’s go.”
And off we went. We made it to the chute to gather with the other horses and their connections, Imperialism and his trusty groom “Short Man” reflecting their trainer’s calm demeanor. I also found Tom and Lion Heart and it was as if we were all members of an exclusive West Coast Derby club, circling near each other. The other California-based connections circled nearby as well. I made my way back and forth between Kristin and Tom. Both were quiet and confident, but I knew that they were feeling the excitement, too.
And then the final call came to make our way toward the paddock. My heart leapt into my throat. The entire Derby field and all their connections stretched across the Churchill Downs main track, trudging through the mud created by the downpour just 30 minutes earlier. The fans were lined against the far turn fence and were five-deep through the stretch, packed into boxes that rose several stories high. I had never seen so many people in one spot.
They were all shouting something.
“I Love you, Imperialism!”
“Go Lion Heart!”
“Hey, there’s Tapit!”
Everyone got a little love from the appreciative crowd. Kristin even heard a few marriage proposals, which made her blush and giggle. She asked me quickly if the men proposing were drunk.
The loudest sound of all, though, was the dull roar from the excitement of the crowd. I couldn’t say a word, it was so overwhelming. Everyone walking on the track could only look up; making sure the horses remained calm and focused was the objective, but the enormity of the moment wasn’t lost on anyone.
My emotions took over and I started to cry, not really believing that I was a part of history and because I was with my friends. Tom caught my eye briefly and mouthed “don’t cry,” even as I could see the same emotion building up in the normally stoic Kristin.
It was one of the most precious moments of my life.
That day Lion Heart and Imperialism were second and third, respectively, to Smarty Jones and though a win from either would have been ideal, we celebrated all the same. Eventually we’d all return from Baltimore and non-winning trips to the Preakness. Tom would reluctantly give up Lion Heart and his life on the road to go home to the family farm in Central California and Sigh the Dog. Kristin took Imperialism back to her Hollywood Park base to prep for a summer campaign and oversee her rapidly growing stable of runners.
Though I didn’t see Tom anymore — as much as I would have liked to — we maintained our solid friendship and still keep regular contact. He started a family and I am a proud Godmother to his beautiful daughter, Marlena. Kristin and I still see each other a lot are still great friends. Watching her success and witnessing her grow as a trainer and as a person has been a privilege.
But the best thing, by far, to have come from that spring 13 years ago and The Walk was my Faith.
Sigh the Dog, it seemed back in the summer of 2004, was about to be a father and Tom had talked his mother into giving me one of the puppies.
“We’ll be friends for life,” he told her. “We made the Derby together. And we made The Walk together. She should have a Sigh puppy.”
And that September I received a voicemail that would change my life.
“Margaret, we have puppies!”
Two months later my sweet Faith came into my life — and she stayed by my side for 11 1/2 years, a constant memory of the most amazing spring of my life and the two friendships I treasure to this day. And just about every time I looked into Faith’s beautiful brown eyes I remembered the happiness of that moment in May under the Twin Spires shared with those friends and how happy and excited I was.
Like her father Sigh the Dog, Faith had become a racetrack dog. She made lots of friends and went with me to work every day for years.
My sidekick, my shadow, my heart.
A year ago, God decided he needed Faith to be with him and He took her home. And as awful as heartbroken as I am and as empty as I feel without her, I wouldn’t change a thing about how she came into my life and what she represented, though I admit I’d have liked a little more time.
So, this year, as the horses and their connections make The Walk, I will fondly remember that time and how it brought two amazing people into my life, as well as the best friend a girl could ever ask for. I will certainly cry, but they will be tears of joy, remembering just how lucky I am for all of it, especially my dear friends and my sweet Faith.