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Having a Horse in the Kentucky Derby: Embrace the "What If?" and Bottle the Feeling at the Top of the Stretch

May 07, 2016 · By Erin Birkenhauer · Share

Today is the Kentucky Derby, the greatest two minutes in sports. My husband and I weren’t planning on going to the Derby this year, until about two days ago. One of our good friends had two extra tickets and invited us, so I went through my hats and fascinators from past years and put an outfit together at the last minute.

Sometimes I just love watching the television broadcast and seeing all the interviews and behind the scenes stories. The years I’ve watched on TV, it isn’t until they play “My Old Kentucky Home” that I regret not going.

Two years ago West Point Thoroughbreds Commanding Curve ran second in the Derby.

I knew it would be an emotional time for me, my family, my colleagues, and our Partners. I don’t take for granted how insanely difficult it is to get a horse into the Kentucky Derby, let alone win it.

I’ll never forget the Derby walkover. The time we spent back at the barn waiting for the “Derby trainers bring your horses to the paddock” announcement felt like an eternity. There were a bunch of us back at Dallas Stewart’s barn, and there was a weird quietness as all of us processed the “What If?”

In one sense I was on top of the world...about to run a horse in the Kentucky Derby. The. Kentucky. Derby. In another I was sick to my stomach with nerves and anxiety. In another filled with worry and just wanting our horse to come home safe and sound.

When we walked out of the barn with Curve, I couldn’t help but just be proud. Proud of him most of all, but proud of our team for picking him out, proud of Dallas and his team for getting him to this point, and proud to walk alongside my colleagues and a great group of partners.  My parents, brother, husband and I held hands and started started the trek toward the TwinSpires. It’s a walk I’ll never forget.

Being in the paddock was pretty much a blur. I just remember Dallas and Terry giving Shaun Bridgmohan a hug and wishing him a safe trip.

We (somehow) managed to get up to the box area to watch the race. I felt I didn’t let my nerves get the best of me until they played “My Old Kentucky Home”, but then I couldn’t help but cry.

Surprisingly I stayed pretty calm when they loaded into the gate. Maybe it was God’s way of telling me I had nothing to worry about and our horse was going to run the race of his life. I don’t really know.

Around the first turn, I didn’t have a whole lot of confidence. Curve was climbing and didn’t look comfortable. Down the backside I knew he was near last, but it was so hard to tell anything with such a big field and so many people around jumping up and down and screaming.

I just remember my dad yelling, “He’s runnin’ Dallas!” At that point I’m like ok cool we might get a piece of this. Then at the top of the stretch I saw Shaun swing Curve out and come running at California Chrome.

For a split second, or maybe even a few seconds I thought we were gonna win. It was the best feeling in the entire world. Even when we finished a fast closing second, we were crying like babies, hugging, kissing, and jumping up and down. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think we’d won.

So, my advice to everyone with a horse in the Derby is to soak it in. Get back to the barn and take in the awkward silence as everyone processes the “what if”. Walk proudly behind your horse and embrace the nervous butterflies in your stomach. Cry when my Old Kentucky Home starts playing. Be grateful when your horse returns to the barn safe and sound.

And oh yeah if you’re lucky enough to have a horse who’s motoring at the top of the stretch, hold that feeling of “Oh my God we’re gonna win the Derby” in a bottle for the rest of your life. I can’t even imagine what winning is like, but I can tell you, just thinking we were going to was pretty amazing.

A little over a month after Curve ran second, I got married. When I danced with my dad, the first thing I said to him was, “You know we almost won the Kentucky Derby.” We’ll get there one day.

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Very enjoyable read. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.
Beautifully shared, Erin! Thanks.
Perfect Erin. Got chills reading it. Craig Accardo
Fond, amazing memories for sure Craig - I still have my Commanding Curve cups!
Enjoyed your article immensely! Thank you!
"The Walk" is going to take you there next year! Buy your tickets now.
Love your thinking Peter!
Great read Thanks for sharing Erin!
FANTASTIC!!!
As the founder of a small thoroughbred racing stable, I so enjoyed this posting! Thank you for sharing! Dan De Federicis Saratoga Springs, NY
Thanks Dan. Good luck to your stable!
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