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Backside of Churchill Downs offers a behind-the-scenes look at Derby hopefuls

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Stephanie Wolf
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Many people are familiar with the iconic features at Churchill Downs: the track, the infield and the twin spires.

But a horse’s journey to the cheering crowds starts at the backside.

That’s where stables hold Kentucky Derby hopefuls. Trainers, jockeys and barn staff are hard at work there to get horses race-ready.

“It’s almost like a city of its own,” backside employee Tommy Murphy said. “A lot of people that don’t know horse racing or anything about Churchill Downs think Derby is just one race on one day and that’s all they run.”

Murphy said backside employees care for the horses like they are their own children.

“They give their lives to these horses,” Murphy said.

Throughout Derby week, the backside has been open for visitors to get a behind-the-scenes look at what workers like Murphy do every day.

“When you live in Louisville or have some access to this experience, you see the hay, you see the hands grooming the horses, you see the outriders,” backside visitor Holly Brockman-Johnson said.

Martha Soley is a track regular who was at the backside before Thursday’s races, often called Thurby by locals. She’s attended the Derby and backside events in the past, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Soley said returning to a bit of normalcy is exhilarating.

“This is my happy place, rather than being over there [in the stands] with a bunch of people that don’t understand what goes on back here,” she said.

Beyond seeing the work that goes into preparing the horses, people can watch them complete their morning workouts and hear trainers and experts talk about their outlooks ahead of the races.

“I like to come back here and go to the different barns, listen to the trainers talk about their horses and then listen to what everyone else is saying, and you can decide at that point who you bet [on],” Soley said.

For employee Tommy Murphy, people visiting the backside is an early sign of the return of the full Kentucky Derby experience. He said he can already feel the energy.

“When this place is going to be packed all the way with over 150,000 people, it’s going to be something that I think everyone has to experience at least once in their life,” he said.