I had yet to check Churchill Downs’ event calendar when I booked my AirBnb for last weekend. I was pleasantly surprised when I found out a few weeks later that Saturday would be Downs After Dark day. Plus, it would be Louisiana themed. What could be better than that? Saturday’s card promised some incredible races, including the Gr.3 Matt Winn, the Gr.2 Fleur de Lis Handicap, Gr.2 Wise Dan, and the Gr.2 Stephen Foster. The Fleur de Lis and Stephen Foster guaranteed spots in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff and Breeders’ Cup Classic, so a lot of attention was on Churchill Downs that night.
My dad, boyfriend, and I arrived at Churchill around 1 p.m. to visit the Kentucky Derby Museum. During the “Barns and Backside Tour”, the guide told us that it would be the track’s third biggest night of the year. From that point on, the anticipation was high for us.
After spending some time at the museum and grabbing some lunch, we headed back to Churchill Downs and grabbed a spot in line. By 5 p.m., multiple lines had formed and they were each quite lengthy. Once the gates opened, we spent some time exploring Churchill Downs. It was the first time any of us had been to the track and it was a really exciting moment.
The track was decorated in green, gold, and purple. Many of the night’s attendees had beaded necklaces draped around their necks. To the tune of New Orleans esque music being played from the stage, people quickly grabbed a drink and found themselves a comfortable spot to begin looking over their programs.
My dad, boyfriend, and I grabbed a bench in front of the paddock and awaited the first horses to arrive. Being my first time at Churchill, I was excited to try taking some paddock photos. The maidens had no problem posing pretty for me when the sound of the shutter caught their attention.
Once the first round of horses left the paddock and headed to the track, we followed. We found seats just in front of the finish line and watched our very first race. Even though the first race was a maiden, the crowd still rumbled with excitement as they came down the stretch. This was, though, just a taste of what would be felt later on in the night.
We headed back to the paddock after the race to try to snag some more photos. Afterwards, we weaved back through the ever growing crowd and to our seats near the finish line.
As the sun began to set, the grandstands began to fill up. Soon, there were people in every direction you looked, pouring over their programs or sipping their drinks and laughing with their friends.
Between some of the races, I met my friend Cady Coulardot. She has been one of my biggest supporters by allowing me to use her amazing photography in my articles and for always sharing what I write. She asked my boyfriend and I to meet her out by the paddock and we happily obliged.
Outside, she was chatting the the great Tom Ferry. Most people who love horse racing have probably seen his photos in magazines, advertisements, and across social media. Cady introduced us to him. He told us what it’s like to be at the Kentucky Derby and to see all the rain-soaked and mud covered people crowding together to stay dry on the 1st floor of the Clubhouse. Tom was so very kind and joyful and it was a pleasure to meet him.
Not long after, a tall, white-haired man in sunglasses approached the three of us. My boyfriend joked later that for a moment he thought Bob Baffert was walking up to us. The man introduced himself, though we couldn’t quite remember him name. Jim? He said he had the #9 horse in the race, whom is named Innocent. He then told us that he was in a Canadian band and mentioned something about The Guess Who and how his band wrote American Woman (the song made famous by Lenny Kravitz). He was a very funny and charismatic man who cursed a lot and was cool. Total rockstar aura. Once the call to the post was played and the paddock began to empty, he said “Well, I guess I should go watch my horse race, huh?” and hurried off.
Open later research, we found that Jim Kale of The Guess Who approached us at Churchill Downs. How cool is that?
As the night rolled on, the races became more and more exciting. We had the perfect spot along the rail to catch pictures of the horses walking to the paddock, in the post parade, and on their way back to the barns.
It was incredible to see horses like Elate and Seeking The Soul. And perhaps my two favorite sights of the night: Mr. Money and Gift Box.
One of the coolest things about our spot was the family that crowded into the seats behind us. They must have worked on the backside because they would wave to the grooms as they walked the horses by and cheered hard for their friends.
The best part was hearing the children picking the horses they thought would win. Though I was a bit older than them when I first started going to the racetrack, it reminded me of myself looking at the Hoosier Park programs with my dad and choosing horses for him to bet on.
“6, 7, and 9,” said one child to another. “You just watch”.
After the Stephen Foster, my family and I decided to grab our things and head back to the car to beat some of the traffic. The sun had set completely and Churchill Downs was decorated with purple and gold projections on their buildings. Drunk and happy people crowded together along the paddock rails to catch a glimpse of the horses they wanted to win. Others sat peacefully on a bench, staring at the large tv above the paddock and watching it all go down.
All in all, Downs After Dark was a wonderful experience. We were able to meet so many kind and amazing people. There was not a moment of hostility - only love for the sport of horse racing and the fun of a New Orleans themed party. Even the security guards were friendly and fun to chat with. The races were absolutely thrilling and the sound of the crowd was mind boggling to someone like me who has only been to Hoosier Park and Indiana Grand on non-stakes days.
I highly recommend that everyone puts a Downs After Dark night on their bucket list. You will love the sounds, the smells, and the sights of that wonderful night.
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