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    By Brandon Quick
    Cover Photo by Chris Witzke

    Washed-out, Lathered-up
    Whether it’s the heat, the crowds or just the stress of the entire day, many horses run their race before the gates ever open. Horses are bad liars and often tip their hands about the type of performance they are about to deliver — by getting noticeably worked up with sweat and other general signs of anxiety in the paddock and post parade. People, while surely the better liars, are also frequently unable to cope with the physical demands of Derby Day. Too drunk, under-hydrated, overheated, over-extended. It’s pretty clear by about 1 p.m. which humans have already run their race. Make a note that, unlike gray horses, fair-complexioned folks are bad bets. 

    Never Turned a Hair
    Then there’s the opposite of the horse who gets washy and lathery before the race. Oddly poetic, the old racetrack expression “never turned a hair” refers to horses who are demonstrably poised or resilient, who are mannerly in their affairs. I once watched two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan win the Firecracker Handicap at Churchill in a summer monsoon while being squished up against the hedge of the turf course. He marched regally to the winner’s circle, lifted his head high, had his picture made and headed back to the barn like the champion he was. Never turned a hair. 

    Now, there aren’t too many human equivalents to Wise Dan, but undoubtedly plenty of folks seem to thrive amid the sound and the fury of Oaks/Derby weekend. Several years ago — I believe it was the year Rachel Alexandra won the Oaks, so let’s call it 2009 — I witnessed a sharply dressed lady, in an insanely large but chic Derby hat, holding a small child in her left arm while talking on a cell phone wedged between her right shoulder and ear. With her right hand, she carried a program, betting slips and a wad of cash. In her left hand (the baby still occupied her left arm), she held a cocktail. All this while making a bet and being on the muscle in stiletto heels. Never turned a hair. 

    On the Muscle
    This cool and classic racing expression describes how a well-conditioned, ready-to-run horse looks in the paddock while preening, prancing and strutting. But take a look at the fedora-wearing, julep-guzzling gent next to you and tell me he’s not also on the muscle. Bonus points for the once-a-year cigar smoker blowing clouds in your face just to announce his presence. Talk about preening. And you’ve really got to be on the muscle to pull off high heels on the Churchill Downs bricks all day.

    These guys? Definitely "on the muscle." / Photo by Adam Mescan

    Speed Duel
    In short, this is something you don’t want if your horse is on the lead and something you relish if your horse is mid-pack or trailing. A “speed duel” describes a pair or group of overly contentious horses on the lead, forcing one another to run faster and exert too much energy too quickly. It’s also referred to as getting “hooked.” Such runners are likely to fade late, and may even be the same horses who were washy and lathery before the race. 

    The Kentucky Derby is a mile-and-a-quarter race — no ordinary distance for three-year-old Thoroughbreds, just like Derby Day is no typical day at the track for fans. The first time I attended the Derby was 2005. I was in the glory of my mid-20s. Long (and forgettable) story short: I hooked up with some former college baseball teammates and cracked my first beer around 8:30 a.m. In horse terms, we might as well have been zipping through an opening quarter-mile in 21 seconds. The onslaught continued round after round in the infield sun. By race time, I was back at my apartment on the couch with a cold rag on my head, watching 50-1 shot Giacomo take home the roses. Fittingly, Giacomo sat patiently behind a furious pace and came charging home with energy to spare.

    This one is a little more subtle than some of the other racetrack idioms, and possibly more difficult to connect to human track etiquette, but hear me out. A horse who is clearly fighting the jockey’s restraint in the early stages of a race is referred to as “rank.” They are easy to spot because they carry their heads cockeyed and do not appear comfortable or happy with the way the metal bit is positioned in their mouths. Simply put, a rank horse is one who wants to “zig” while the jockey is trying to “zag.” The horse-jockey synergy is broken, and a poor finish is almost certain.

    The whole scenario seems to me a perfect metaphor for couples attending Oaks/Derby together. The day starts with great intentions and the prospect of fun, but the track can be a hard place for two people — particularly of the opposite sex — to coexist. Inevitably, one partner wants to drink/gamble and one wants to look pretty/enjoy the crowd. And these roles aren’t always gender specific. Again, you’ve got the zig/zag phenomenon going. I’ve seen more than a handful of guys fighting their wives’ restraint and carrying their heads cockeyed as they head for the exit. Poor finish certain. 

    Changing Leads
    Here’s a horse nuance that is much easier to explain in human terms. All horses compete around left-hand (or counterclockwise) turns in North America and are thus trained to lead with their left hooves hitting the ground before the right. When straightened away for the stretch drive, jockeys give their mounts a cue to change to their right lead, which often gives the horse added acceleration before tiring. Remember I mentioned women on the muscle in heels? Like a skilled jockey, the crafty female Oaks-/Derby-goer knows how to change leads or, as the ladies call it: bring a pair of flats. Either way, changing leads and changing shoes are the best way to get to the Churchill Downs finish line. 

    This originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

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