LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- You can't miss the sign. It's bolted to Brad Cox's barn on the back side at Churchill Downs. "Mandaloun, 2021, Kentucky Derby Winner."
Walk into the Kentucky Derby Museum and take a quick left, through the replica starting gate, and you'll see a beautiful re-creation of a moment that never was. Mandaloun, in the winner's circle, with the garland of roses around his neck.
Cox, the first Louisville-born trainer with a Kentucky Derby victory to his credit, heard about the honor eight months after the Derby, via text message, when reporters contacted him looking for a reaction.
That was Feb. 21 of this year. Medina Spirit was disqualified by state stewards. Mandaloun was elevated to winner. A day later, a sign bearing his name was put in the traditional spot reserved for the previous year's Derby winner in the paddock.
No roses. No governor congratulating you. No Mike Tirico interview.
"There was no thrill of victory," Cox said. "It was just OK, cool."
I asked him this past Saturday if he felt like a Derby winner.
"No, not really," he said. "It's cool, but we're definitely looking to win the Derby and experience it. Winning the Derby is about experiencing the thrill of victory. Stepping into the winner's circle. We didn't get to experience it in real time. Hopefully, next Saturday."
On Saturday, more than 130,000 people are expected to jam themselves back into Churchill Downs to experience the Kentucky Derby in real time, once again. Like Cox, they want the experience. They want to feel the hoofbeats, to hear My Old Kentucky Home, to vibrate with the constant buzz inside those historic gates on the first Saturday in May.
This week, Kentucky is coming back for its Derby. After two years of COVID disruptions and restrictions and three years of disfunction due to on-track disqualification or a drug infraction by the connections of last year's winner, the Kentucky Derby needs to get back on track.
It will do that without its co-winningest trainer ever, and on-track winner of the past two Derbies, Bob Baffert. But it can't avoid the shadow he casts. Two of his trainees, Santa Anita Derby winner Taiba and runner-up Messier are in Louisville racing under one of Baffert's former assistants, Tim Yakteen.
Also here is Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, who is 0-for-23 in the Derby but has had no colt with odds of the kind that Louisiana star Epicenter will carry into the starting gate.
Chad Brown comes from New York with a serious contender in Zandon, winner of the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, bred in Kentucky by former Gov. Brereton Jones.
Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher has three entries – Mo Donegal, Charge It and Pioneer of Media. And University of Kentucky product Ken McPeek has a couple of interesting contenders in Tiz the Bomb and Smile Happy.
But the story of this year's Derby is in the stands, around the track instead of on it.
If Churchill Downs' opening night on Saturday is any indication, the public is ready to celebrate the Derby, without blinders, fully extended.
The story here is the return of the Derby at full capacity. The pomp, the circumstance.
As Brad Cox will tell you, the Derby is as much an experience as a horse race. He has the plaque on his barn wall, but he wants the Derby in his senses, the rose petals falling around him, the wall of sound from an enthralled grandstand.
As Derby week dawns, there are problems for horse racing. The biggest personality in the sport has been banished. But the anticipation is high. The magnitude of the event is set to return.
That's the Kentucky Derby. Yes, it's a museum piece. But it's also a moment. And for the first time in a couple of years, Kentucky is ready to experience it again. All of us.
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