The morning of the post position draw for the Grade 1 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, a young man stopped to talk to someone else sitting at my table. As happens more often than not at these types of events, we were discussing who we thought would win Keeneland's signature race. He tapped a name on my list of entrants, smiled and walked away.
The following evening, as I made my way downtown for Thursday Night Live, a weekly outdoor event in Lexington, rain descended from the sky in sheets. I wondered if it would ruin the evening's plans -- and in the end it did -- but not before I witnessed a cheerful, youthful blonde encouraging people to risk a little rain in order to get a free pair of jockey goggles.
Yes, jockey goggles. Technically they could choose from goggles, a t-shirt or a drink koozie, but the goggles were far and away the biggest lure to brave the elements.
So why stand in the rain offering freebies? Because she was trying to get people to sign up for a contest to win a trip to the Kentucky Derby. Actually, going a bit deeper than that, Mary Frances Dale is trying to get people to love racing as much as she does.
"We want to bring the joy of horse racing to everyone's life," said Dale. "It is so much fun, and it is a wonderful traditional pastime. I feel like a lot of people our age are missing out, and I want to bring it to them. There is a wonderful legacy that surrounds horse racing. It is epic."
Jose Contreras, the one who offered me a suggestion on who was going to take the Blue Grass, has the same goal. Together, along with Chip McGaughey, John Cox, Hallie Hardy, and Victoria Garofalo, they make up the crew traveling the country as part of a national bus tour promoting the concept of America's Best Racing. Their goal throughout 2013 is to increase interest in the lifestyle and competition of America's high profile Thoroughbred races and big event days across the country.
No one questions the fact horse racing needs to build its fan base. It is also no secret that the younger crowds don't tend to descend upon racetracks. But dedicating a year of your life to traveling the country trying to get people to buy in?
Well, that is a special level of passion.
"I can't believe someone is actually doing this," said Contreras. "I love taking new people out to the racetrack and explaining to them why it is fun to play the horses or go out there to socialize. It is the whole scene. I love doing it, so why not do it on a national scale? When I heard about America's Best Racing, I was like, 'Count me in!' I had to move from California to Kentucky in a month, but when they called, I said yes immediately."
Prior to joining America's Best Racing, Contreras didn't just take friends and friends of friends to the track for fun. He took them there to show them how to bet. When he hit a $65,904 pick six in 2006 at the age of 21, you can better believe people started paying attention to what he was saying.
"I like to not only tell them how to bet, but teach them how to read the program," he said. "My dad was a fan of the sport and a handicapper, so I actually probably started reading the form before I started reading books. Simple steps I have can open up someone's eyes and make them go, 'Wow it is so easy to read, and I thought it was so complicated.' "
While America's Best Racing seemed like an ideal fit for the handicapper, life is never quite that simple. When Contreras said yes to ABR, he wasn't just saying yes for himself. He is married, and his wife agreed to make the move to the Bluegrass to support her husband's passion. Considering her family is in the industry and they met at Los Alamitos Race Course, it isn't stunning she would agree to the one-year career change, but impressive none the less.
"I said, 'Honey we are going to Kentucky,' and that was it," said Contreras. "We drove from California to Kentucky. It was a pretty exciting. She is pretty cool. I have to give that to her, she is awesome."
For Dale, agreeing to the job was also an extension of a life long passion. However, she comes at it from the social side of things, more than handicapping.
"I grew up riding horses and absolutely love them," she said. "Horses have always been a big part of my life and I have a passion for them. When I got older, I also fell in love with the lifestyle aspect of it: getting dressed up with your friends, the fashion, the hats, the beautiful dresses and colors.
"There is something for everyone at the track. So we are trying to show that to people. Maybe get the girls to come out because they want to go out with their friends and get dressed up. Maybe get their boys to come out so they can win some money. Then maybe the girls will be like, 'Hey they are winning money, maybe I should start looking into this, too.' "
Everybody shares what their strength is, and now we have become a very balanced group.
”-- Jose Contreras, ABR
Although Contreras and Dale come at horse racing from vastly different places, it is the differences that make them work so well together. In fact, it is the different background of all six participants that make the concept a viable one.
"We have a good mix of people and everyone shares ideas," said Contreras. "Everybody is getting better about what everybody else brings to the table. For example, I am the resident handicapper of the group, so now I have everyone excited about handicapping. Mary Frances is more about the social aspect, and she is sharing with us about how to get people to come out here. Everybody shares what their strength is, and now we have become a very balanced group."
It should come as no surprise that the next stop on their tour across the country is Louisville for the May 4 Kentucky Derby. Although a set itinerary is not in place, one thing is for certain: the bus will be parked in the famed infield the day of the Run for the Roses.
"We have a tentative schedule," said Contreras. "That is where a lot of the work comes from. We are detectives. We are dissecting every market. We are figuring out who we want to reach out to in every market, where do we want to park and what places we want to hit. We reach out to locals."
One thing Contreras and Dale are both aware of is that this gig has a definite end date -- they have one year to spread their gospel. In the future Contreras wants to work in the industry in some capacity, but hopefully as a handicapper. Dale, who graduated college last spring, is open to anything.
Regardless, for the year to be a success on a personal level, they both know what they need to happen.
"All the people I meet and the one-on-one connections are what I find valuable," said Dale. "That is really important to me. Giving people jockey goggles, having fun with them and maybe making their day better, that is what I personally get happy about. I love that.
"I think a lot of people are intimidated by horse racing, but when they see our bright shining faces and we are so excited, that makes me really happy on a personal level. It breaks down that barrier. Horse racing has its own lingo and culture, and it shows them they can be part of it. I want them to join the fun. We are going to be there to help and there is no judgment. We are trying to break down the intimidation factor."
Contreras also thrives on the connections he is making during his journey.
"The influence of seeing young people enjoy the sport is really key," he said. "At the end of the day, I want to see more people like me at the track. I got tired of not seeing enough people like me enjoying it. I started taking friends and they started falling in love with it. If I can make a difference one-on-one, imagine what a national incentive like this can do? If we see more people like us at the tracks enjoying it, then that will be a success."
Maybe at the end of it all, it isn't so crazy. If you truly love something, you want others to love it to. That is a corner stone of human nature.
And if you are curious about Contreras' tip for the Blue Grass, it was Palace Malice. The Curlin colt finished second by a neck, and just like the America's Best Racing gang, he is Kentucky Derby bound.
Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Among her other duties, she is an editor for Gallop Magazine. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.