Derby Work

Prepping Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby is a massive task involving thousands of people. Meet the workers behind the face of one of America's most famous sports venues.

A worker guides a tractor around the track harrowing the surface after races are completed at Churchill Downs on Thurby Day.

Groom Sol Melchor hangs leg wraps at Churchill Downs. Grooms work for thoroughbred trainers, and are responsible for day-to-day care of horses. Melchor has worked at Churchill Downs for 10 years and says, "It's just a job."

Isabell Pasquale holds on to Stiqua during a washing. Pasquale has been working at Churchill Downs for one year. Hot walkers like Pasquale are mainly tasked with walking horses after workouts.

A tractor harrowing the track passes through the shadows of the Twin Spires after races are finished at Churchill Downs on Thursday. A great deal of care goes into preparing the 1 1/4 mile track for the legendary Kentucky Derby.

Katie Klann for ESPN

Dr. Mick Peterson, who runs the race track testing laboratories, takes moisture readings of the dirt track. The weather for Saturday's running of the Kentucky Derby is expected to be clear, though an earlier-than-expected storm could alter track conditions.

Katie Klann for ESPN

Exercise rider Hannah Sandwick stands outside the barns at Churchill Downs in the morning light. This is Sandwick's first Derby, and she loves galloping in the morning. Sandwick dropped out of Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, where she was studying pre-med. Says Sandwick: "I haven't looked back since I started galloping five years ago."

Steve Brown, left, and Kevin Browning take down the portable rail so horses can run by the hedge, which breaks down the wear on the turf.

Katie Klann for ESPN

Kentucky Derby Festival princesses pose along the backside at Churchill Downs on Thursday. Festival princess Adrienne Poole, standing middle back, says, "Watching the sunrise this morning along the track at Churchill Downs was icing on the cake and really an experience I'll never forget, so we had to take a selfie."

Teller Terry Smith, right, takes a bet at a betting window on the Thursday before Derby Day. An estimated $12 million was bet on last year's Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, and millions more are wagered off site.

Betty Bailey, left, and LaVerne Johnson have been sweeping at Churchill Downs for five years as part of a fundraiser for Cable Baptist Church. Bailey said "We're cleaning for Christ."

Bruce Kincaid builds saw horses or "saw dogs" at Churchill Downs. "I'm a Derby baby," Kincaid says. "Born on Derby Day 59 years ago. Never thought I'd work my whole life here. I went to church one block from here. I live two miles from here."

Suzie Harvey has been working at Churchill Downs off and on for 28 years and has been at the Danny Peitz barn for over a year. She says she "just loves riding the horses."

Noe Bahena bathes Jack Bu Genius, a maiden horse (meaning he has yet to win a race). Bahena has alternated working at Oaklawn Park Race Track in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and Churchill Downs.

Workers clean up after a busy Thursday at Churchill Downs. Nearly 40,000 patrons watched as Silvertoni won the $100,000 Kentucky Juvenile, as part of the lead-up to Saturday's main event. The Thursday preceding the Oaks and Derby races has been referred to as "Thurby" in recent years.

Jonathan Moore sweeps in a tunnel at Churchill Downs on Thursday. "I help with everything. I don't know what you'd call me," Moore says about his job. The 2015 Kentucky Derby attracted a record crowd of 170,513, and a similar-sized crowd this year figures to leave a veritable avalanche of refuse in its wake.

Working his "15th or 16th" Derby by his estimate, Robin Rosenberg, right, the VP chef du cuisine at Levy Restaurants, prepares a plate to be served at the Turf Club as chef David Siegler looks on. There are 1,000 people serving the entire Downs, and a total of 20,000 meals are served. In 2015, there were 127,000 mint juleps served on the property.

Todd Boston works on a horse outside the barns at Churchill Downs. He has spent 30 years as a farrier -- namely providing for the care of horses' hooves -- and says "it's the greatest week in horse racing for us. Might be a little quieter next week for us."

Evans Calling receives a bath from his grooms. Assistant Raphael Maldonaeo (middle, in gray) is from Chicago and has been around horses his whole life. His parents both work here as well. He's working with groom Rodrigo Vazquez and hot walker Rosa Chavez. They work on 20 horses at the Downs.

Buckled straps for horses hang outside a barn at Churchill Downs.

Project coordinator Cathy Sheppard puts the finishing touches on the garland of roses that will be draped over the winning Kentucky Derby horse. The garland is hand-stitched at Kroger, a local grocery store in Louisville.

Gary "Moonie" Leunberger replaces a tile in front of a tribute to Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. "I love enjoying people enjoying themselves at Churchill."

More Stories