The Eleven Hole

May, 4, 2011
05/04/11
8:38
PM ET
LOUISVILLE, KY -- I drew a great post position tonight on Master of Hounds. Leaving from the 11 hole, we're not too far inside, not too far outside. We're right in the middle of the field and of course we'll have to make our own trip just like from anywhere, but I like the draw. For a while there, I was holding my breath, because they kept drawing and kept drawing and our name hadn't been called. I just didn't want to get the one hole, which is where I was with Lookin at Lucky last year. I really didn't want to be in there again, especially with a horse from Europe and the way Europeans jump away from the gate. Even though they've been doing some work with him, usually they're just a little bit slow and aren't used to the American style. But like I said before, the horse is well-traveled and they've done some work with him so hopefully he'll leave with the field and I can find a trip and work it out from there.

It was finally sunny today at Churchill Downs, but that definitely hasn't been the case in the weeks leading up to this year's Derby. April showers, you know what I mean? Of course, it just turned May, but here around Derby time, the rain just comes.

A sloppy track can be miserable for horses and jockeys, or it can be this magic conveyor belt to the winner's circle. You never know exactly how it's going to go because some horses handle it and some horses don't. Horses have to deal with the water and the mud that flies up and slops up in their face, and some of them act like it's just another racetrack, and some of them are freaked out by it. Some horses, on a muddy racetrack, will bobble a lot. They don't feel their feet across the top of it until they're already sinking into it; it's almost like their depth perception is off. They'll misplace their feet a little bit because there's nothing telling them how to adapt their next step. Horses that skip across it, on the other hand, seem to just float along and never feel uneven surfaces; they just cruise across the top.

It's funny because you could have the same horse that floated across a sloppy track at Churchill Downs and he gets to Saratoga and runs horribly in the mud there because it's a whole different surface. Every time a track gets muddy like this, the top of the track handles water a little differently and the bottom of the track handles that much moisture in a different way too. For a muddy racetrack and as much rain as Churchill Downs gets, it never seems to actually get too hard. If you went out there right now and looked at the hoofprints from the horses, they're still sinking in about three inches. So when they dig their feet in to get traction as they're racing, their toe is going about three inchest into the ground. It's a different kind of cushion than a dry track because it's packed down so you don't have three inches of fluffiness and then bottom; it's a little firmer, but it's still kind.

As far as riding in the slop is concerned, it can be a bit of a challenge. Jockeys wear sets of goggles to protect our eyes from the kickback of sand, mud, or dirt, and when there's a lot of water and rain it can be pretty difficult to see. We stack five or six pairs of goggles on top of each other and pull them down gradually as each set gets dirty. If you stick your hands up on either side of your head, shielding your eyes, that's pretty much what it feels like - like taking a horse and sticking a set of small-cup blinkers on him. We pretty much don't have any peripheral vision until we get rid of a couple of pairs. Once you put on four or five or six, you can't really see around you, but when you pull a couple pair down it feels a little more normal. On a normal racetrack, depending on where you're at in the race, say you're mid-pack getting pounded a lot, you're probably pulling down a set between every eighth and three-sixteenth of a mile. In 2007 at Monmouth in the Breeders' Cup in that slop, I had six pair on in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, and before I got to the first turn (I was in the one hole and I had speed), the first splash that I got, I couldn't see. It was like a gunk. If you look at my win picture, I have no goggles on. I'd pulled them all down and I had six pair on. I pulled the last pair down at the eighth pole.

If you're outside or somewhere on the lead it's not a big deal, but when you get in behind horses or up close, midpack, that's a problem. If you're farther back, six or seven trailing the field, a lot of times you don't get hit any because you're so far back. On a racetrack like this in the Derby, if it doesn't dry out before then, you'd need probably seven pair of goggles and you'd have to use them sparingly and make sure not to run out. But we can cheat, too, to conserve. I can take five pair and turn them into 10 pair. When a splash comes back, instead of pulling the whole pair down, I pull one side down so half of my goggle is diagonally across my eye, one side exposing the new goggle underneath and one eye still covered. Then I pull the other side down and I've got that whole sheet for a couple jumps. Then I pull that side down and a few strides later I pull the other side down. So you time it as you go around. If you pull them down and you're in behind horses and it's your last pair, it's not going to do you any good anyway. That's where it gets a little hairy and you've got to trust your horse to get you around there. It's almost like you go blind for a little while, so you just have to trust your way and put yourself into a position where you can't feel the stuff slapping you in the face, then pull them down and put yourself where you can be outside or where you can completely see again.

People ask me how the track condition is here, and you can imagine since Louisville has gotten about 14 inches of rain in the past month. The only time I've seen that amount of rain is at Santa Anita right after they brought back the new dirt track. Since ours was a new racetrack, when all that rain came it washed some of the sand and the silt away, all of the sudden the clay content got even higher. It was just one of those things where they were trying to adjust and put back what was lost. Here, it seems to be very consistent. Even with the rain, you don't see them having to dump a lot of material on it, because for some reason this material doesn't get up and float away when the water starts washing off. It's a perfect combination of sand and dirt and silt and clay. I think this is a really good surface all the way around, it handles a lot of sun and dryness and when the rain comes it handles all the rain, which is pretty amazing.

The weather is supposed to be great tomorrow too, so I'm fairly confident we'll have a track in decent shape going into the weekend - fingers crossed! Thanks for reading and I'll get around to answering your questions in the next couple of posts. Derby 137 is only three days away!

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