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What it's Like to Work the Oaks & Derby: A Look Back at 2011

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Everyone that's a fan of horse racing, a native Kentuckian--or in my case, both--aspires to attend at least one Kentucky Derby in person. I've had the privilege of attending 4 as a fan when I was younger (1995, 1998, 1999, 2000). I also went to Oaks at the end of my Spring Semesters in 2009 & 2010 as a fan. I also worked Oaks and Derby for Alpha Phi Omega back in 2011. This will focus on the year that I worked Oaks and Derby back in 2011.

Me in front of the paddock for 2010 Oaks Day with Alpha Phi Omega mascots from Omega Mu (the moose, Quazi) and Delta Theta (Dee Tee, the dog) chapters.
Me in front of the paddock for 2010 Oaks Day with Alpha Phi Omega mascots from Omega Mu (the moose, Quazi) and Delta Theta (Dee Tee, the dog) chapters.
My dad took this when we went to 2010 Oaks.

Even people that don't focus on horse racing but 1-4 days a year know what the Kentucky Derby is in Kentucky. And if they only follow one day or one race, the Derby is it. Three-year-olds running 1 1/4 miles, My Old Kentucky Home, Mint Juleps and such come to mind immediately when thinking of the first Saturday in May. 150,000+ pile into Churchill Downs for every Derby Day. 100,000+ pile in for Oaks. What is not counted towards the attendance, are the workers that are there. Even the volunteer workers, like I was in 2011.

Oaks and Derby Day are exhausting, in a good way, to racing fans that attend on site. It costs quite a bit to attend both cards as a fan; $25 for Oaks and $40 for Derby surely isn't cheap. Nor are most of the concessions that day, as a meal that would normally cost about $20 for a group of 3 runs about $40-50 on those days. After having worked the Oaks & Derby in 2011, I can see why it's priced at a premium. If you work Oaks & Derby, arrival time is quite early in the day, as the gates for general admission open around 8 AM. That means the workers are there around 6 AM. If you arrive with the people in charge of the stands that have to get there early for morning meetings, you're there at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium lot around 5:30 AM. Being a horse racing fanatic, I have a hard time getting to sleep in anticipation of the sport's biggest weekend for most. Getting to work the event had me even more restless in a good way.

When you're working the event, there are few breaks in the action of whatever job or task comes your way. For Alpha Phi Omega for the region of our co-ed service fraternity, we helped to mass produce the official drinks of the Oaks and Derby--the Lily and Mint Julep, respectively. Never have I opened so many bottles of liquor mix nor as many mint leaves in my life. Both days were constant drink making from 9 AM until right after they ran the American Turf (Oaks Day) and Turf Classic (Derby Day). There was time to bet those days, though I was largely flying blind as I had to make all my bets before we started working if I wanted to bet the undercard. It's long, hard tiring work, but definitely worth it to work the event once.

While working Friday, I overheard that Uncle Mo scratched on the two-way radios that the leaders of our work station were carrying. There went my initial Derby horse that year. Part of it was blind optimism, because Secretariat ran a lackluster third in his Wood Memorial prep in 1973, too. Part of it was remembering how dominant Uncle Mo looked in the previous year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, which I attended live. It wasn't to be, and I had to find a new Derby horse to back and offered up prayers that Uncle Mo overcame his conditions just fine.

On Oaks Day, my tickets took a bath, as Guys Reward winning an allowance race on grass was the only cash I had the whole day. In the Oaks itself, I took a chance on St. John's River, as I liked the Fair Grounds Oaks as a prep that year and she had an outside post, as you wanted to be as far outside as possible for that weekend. They let Plum Pretty sit a perfect trip near the pace the whole race. Into the stretch, it appeared as though St. John's River would run her down, but it wasn't to be. She lost in a head-bob at the wire to Plum Pretty, whom I had dismissed at the window for beating a soft field in her prep race, though the odds of Plum Pretty were a bit overlaid that day. Naturally, my dad picked St. John's River as well. That was the first thing I asked him that night when we got back to our housing after working the Oaks. Of course, we think alike even when 90 miles apart.

Derby Day came about next. I bet a small pick three that bought the first race that day and singled C J Russell, a Bob Baffert first time starter that looked like it would have been 1-5 on a normal day, but floated to 3-5 or 4-5 on Derby Day in the third race that day. On a fairer track, C J Russell would have won for fun. But he only won by about 2 lengths, which indicated to me that the stay outside and probably close bias was still holding. I leaned towards Nehro in the Derby for this reason. I also like Capt. Candyman Can in the Churchill Downs 7f sprint race; I couldn't hear all that well from the loudspeaker in the tunnel that we worked in, but from what I heard, it sounded like the Capt. won. But he moved a bit too soon in a blanket photo finish to finish 4th losing by a narrow margin. That was the theme of that day, save for my early pick three hit of ~$30. Come time for Derby, I leaned towards Nehro for his outside post and closing style. During the race, Corey Nakatani took Nehro up close to the pace. Which turned out to be costly. Animal Kingdom ended up winning the race. Nehro, as usual, ran 2nd. At the time, because of not having that much news about the races from working all weekend, I didn't know JV picked up the mount until after the race.

If I had just used the "he won the race back home, bet him to win now" logic that saw my older sister find Lil E. Tee in 1992, I'd have won money. But I think logically, so that didn't happen. Least I had the Derby handicapped spot on in 2012. Even gave it out to the APO brothers that worked it last year.

I didn't work it last year because graduation was near for U of L and I wanted to relax after putting in four years of hard work towards a degree. The hard work condensed into two days in 2011 when I worked Oaks and Derby for APO. I certainly wouldn't want to buy a mint julep from the vendors with the drink trays after having made them en masse, that's for sure. Take it from someone who worked back there before; buy them from the concessions, they're made better and less sloppily, though it's all hygienic, of course. If you're down there and worried about the lines or waits, just remember how hard and fast the people behind the scenes are working at Oaks and Derby. There's a reason they don't run again until Thursday the following week to clean up after the mess of 250,000+ people attending in 2 days time. Take it all in stride, but be thankful not everyone's working it and especially for those that are.