TAHLEQUAH, Oklahoma – In Louisville, Kentucky, horses and racing fans are gathering at Churchill Downs to prepare for the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown. Northeastern Oklahoma has its own equine traditions, and many horse breeders and enthusiasts are preparing for the big event.
Peggy Glenn, director of development at Northeastern State University, grew up around horses. Her father had a quarter horse ranch, where they raised colts and fillies. She grew up in the horse racing community.
“We would watch the derby every year. I remember one year we had bad television reception, and my dad rented a hotel room so we could watch the Kentucky Derby,” said Glenn.
Another year, she had a chance to go to the Preakness Stakes, in Baltimore, Maryland – the second leg of the Triple Crown.
“We were at the InfieldFest, which is a big party,” she said.
It is difficult for horses to win the Triple Crown. In the 146-year tradition, only 13 horses have won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes in one year.
Glenn said many different factors make it difficult for horses to win the Triple Crown.
“The courses have different track conditions. They are all pretty close together, so you don’t have a lot of time to rebound from one race to the next. It takes a special horse, which won’t be too worn out,” she said.
The Belmont Stakes is the longest course, at 1-1/2 miles, and the Preakness Stakes is the shortest at 1-3/16th mile, and the Kentucky Derby is 1-1/4 mile. The last two horses to win the Triple Crown were Justify in 2018 and American Pharaoh in 2015. Prior to that, Affirmed won it in 1978.
“Everything is a blank slate at the Kentucky Derby. This year, there are 20 horses running. This is the only time the courses will be running in such a big field,” she said.
An aspect of horse racing that many – including Glenn – find interesting is that horses peak at 3 years old, one year after being saddle-broken. She said Kentucky Derby horses are all young and lack experience and training. For some horses, the Kentucky Derby is the first major competition they have ever run in.
“They have only been broke to ride for a year, and it shows. Getting them in the gate can be an issue. There’s always that one horse that doesn't want to get in the gate,” she said.
Horses are also famous for their unique names, such as Cyberknife, Classic Causeway, and Tiz The Bomb. These horse names are not necessarily what breeders and trainers call the horses; they are like stage names. For example, Secretariat, the famous Triple Crown winner, went by Big Red, or just Red, by his owner and trainers.
“You only have so many characters you can use,” said Glenn. “They will try to be clever with the name. It will be something they can remember. When you submit your papers, you submit several names, and you can’t use a name that’s been used. That’s why people get clever on spelling.”
LeeAnn Dreadfulwater, communications project manager at Cherokee Nation’s OsiyoTV, has been riding horses since she was 9 years old. She owns Arabian horses – the breed from which thoroughbred racing horses descend. As a youth, she performed in miniature rodeos, but now she does trail riding.
She said there is some controversy surrounding the age of racing horses. Some believe the age is too young.
“They are not what we consider saddle-broken horses,” she said.
Very few horses are sent to what those in the industry call "breeding sheds." Those that do not win are repurposed and sent to families.
“They have to have their brains rewired to be trained to be good citizens and to have a good job. A lot of off-the-track horses make great riding partners. There are whole groups that do nothing but rehome thoroughbreds,” she said.
Dreadfulwater remembers watching Secretariat win as a child, which impresses her to this day.
“It is amazing to see that level of horse, which does not happen too often. His track records are standing today, and that was 1973,” she said.
Paula Chaffin, another horse racing fan, is taking notes on the 2022 Kentucky Derby. She will be rooting for Messier, named after the New York Rangers hockey hero, who has good odds and a good post number.
“With Kentucky Derby contender, Messier’s consistency of a Beyer Speed Figure of 103 and 102 won’t go unnoticed. His quite decent, but-not-completely-great post draw may help this noble steed,” said Chaffin.