LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- One hour and 54 minutes before the start of the Kentucky Derby, Mark Casse's barn crew went through their usual routines. Classic Empire waited out the time in stall No. 26 while his handlers washed his face with a sponge and talked to him in Spanish. A sheriff's deputy kept watch, and around the backside, the owners and their friends began gathering outside the barns, big groups of people in suits and ties and hats. Everything was silent, the only noise coming from nearby birds and the occasional plane circling overhead, towing banners. One plane advertised a roofer. The sun came out, maybe the first blue skies of the weekend.
An hour and 41 minutes from the race, clouds covered the sun and the air turned a bit cool. Classic Empire swung his head up and down. One of the grooms took a selfie with him, then fixed her hair and took another. Kids on the backside picked up little rocks and threw them. Casse changed clothes in his small office, knotting his horse tie and slipping on his gray jacket. On the wall, a photo hung of his father, another thoroughbred lifer, who died last year. This week, Casse found himself oddly emotional, thinking about his dad and how much he'd have loved this. He'd been making jokes about how the only tiny silver lining is not having to deal with the river of ticket requests that would have flowed through his barn the past 48 hours. The joke is easier than admitting how much he misses him.
Race game plans ran through his head.
He thought about the muddy track, and how he didn't think Classic Empire would get a clean run. The inside runners had been winning race after race, and Empire would be starting in position No. 14. Luckily, Casse had another horse in the race, State of Honor, and he kept turning a crazy idea over in his head: What if he sent him out fast to see if he could take advantage of the track's tendencies? He shot a little conspiratorial grin.
"That might be our best chance of winning," he said.
An hour before post, Casse killed time by telling funny stories. About 20 years ago, he admonished a stable worker and the guy grabbed a pitchfork, ready to fight. Casse's crew gathered around, seeing what was about to happen, and made the only logical decision: They tossed Casse a pitchfork to make it a fair fight. Standing right outside the barn, his back to the track, he cackled. After disarming the guy, Casse, a former high school wrestler, got him in a choke hold. For the next 10 years, his crew called him "the Karate Kid."
Someone put a tray of veggies in the tack room. Other people nibbled on cookies.
Casse checked his watch.
"They've got us going pretty early," he said.
"At 6:06, we walk up," one of his staff said.
His son and assistant trainer, Norman Casse, looked out at the other barns.
The trainers were all playing chicken.
"We won't go out until we see somebody else go out," he said.
It was 5:51 p.m.
One of the ladies roaming the barn sprayed some essential oils on Mark's hand, something floral and a little sweet, to help him stay calm. Classic Empire's owner, an oilman named John Oxley, arrived on the track side of the barn. Like his father before him, he was an expert polo player when he was younger -- strong and powerful then -- but now he was a sweet, old man who kept checking on his wife. Sixteen years ago, he won the Derby with Monarchos.
"How's our horse looking?" he asked.
"Awesome," Norman said.
Time moved slow.
Mark walked away, by himself, heading up to the entrance to the track, looking out at the mud and the twin spires. It was 5:55.
"This is the hard part," said Debby Oxley, John's wife. "Waiting."
Ten minutes later, the two horses in Casse's Barn 36 were led outside, into the shifting mass of people. Crowds gathered around the track entrance, and the grooms and staff tried to keep people from running into the horses. They all stepped onto the muddy track. The people standing against the rail offered good-lucks. The walk went fast, then into the cool tunnel beneath the spires, where a little wind whipped around the arched ceiling. Soldiers lined the left wall, wearing berets.
The horses and trainers and owners stepped into the madness of the paddock.
The backside of Churchill Downs has balconies at all different sorts of angles, like gun placements on a warship, and people crowded onto them and leaned over, looking down. Hundreds of people packed the grass in the paddock and thousands more pushed against each other outside the fence. It was mayhem.
Classic Empire was in stall No. 14, moving his head a little, his ears pricked up.
"He looks dappled out," said Justin Casse, another of Mark's sons.
"That's very good news," Oxley said.
Oxley wedged in near his horse, two or three people deep, and while people kept offering him a place on the front row, he declined. Mostly he looked around for his wife, who got separated from them during the madness of the walk from the barn. Finally, she showed up, and he put his arm around her.
"Are you OK?" he asked.
There were 21 minutes left until post.
Classic Empire walked backward a bit, into the deepest part of the stall.
Fourteen minutes to go.
The grooms and Mark patted the horse, and they slipped the bit into his mouth. The sound of the crowd echoed off the bricks. Standing around in a cluster, friends of the Oxleys kept checking the time.
"How's your adrenaline?" one of them asked.
"I woke up at 5:50 and couldn't go back to sleep," his friend said.
With 10 minutes to go, the bugler sounded the call. The metabolism, already intense, changed. The horses and the connections marched toward the track, back into the tunnel, led by a wall of state troopers. Fans pressed their faces up against the metal bars on the left of the tunnel and screamed, fueled by an entire day of booze. The first thing the owners smelled when they hit the track was the overpowering smell of horse manure.
There were nine minutes until post.
A line of uniformed sailors and Marines stood at parade rest near the inside rail.
Four minutes remained, then three, then two.
"The horses have reached the starting gate," the public address announcer said.
One minute remained, then 30 seconds, and then the gates opened. McCraken veered hard and slammed into Classic Empire, killing the plan of having him get inside within striking distance of the lead. Mark's other horse, State of Honor, took off blazing -- exactly as he planned -- but didn't have the speed. For the next mile, jockey Julien Leparoux drove Classic Empire back up through the pack.
He finished fourth, 14 lengths back.
"He tried," Mark said.
Minutes after the finish, Mark walked by himself down the muddy track, back to the tunnel. The paddock, a crush of humanity 10 minutes earlier, was mostly empty, with people already arriving for the next race. Someone chased him down, handing him Classic Empire's muddy blanket, which had been forgotten in the stunned disappointment of the rough start and the muddy, sloppy race.
"That's horse racing," Mark said.
He had a horse running in two races, so he went back to work. That's what he learned as a boy, going to the racetrack with his dad. That's what he has taught his sons. The celebrities and owners will go on with their lives when the Derby buzz wears off. Mark and the other men and women like him will be back at a track, up before the sun. They'll be running horses before empty grandstands on quiet mornings, the only sound from the animals' breathing and their hooves.