Behind The Scenes

Racing about Churchill Downs

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I293WWTNx8M

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As an Associate Producer of Original Content in ESPN.com’s Digital Media Department, I’ve had the opportunity to cover some of the greatest spectacles in sports.

I’ve been to the World Series to the Stanley Cup to the Golden Tee World Championship in fabulous Las Vegas.

My most recent assignment: I covered the 137th Kentucky Derby with Kenny Mayne.

Our task seemed simple. Get 20 interviews, one for each horse running the Derby.

But the problems came early.

Thursday afternoon, while I was being shuttled from hallowed Papa Johns Cardinal Stadium — where my media parking pass placed me — to hallowed Churchhill Downs, Kenny called. The airline had lost his luggage.

Was it going to be a problem if he conducted the interviews wearing a sweatshirt.

“Yes, it’s a problem,” I explained, “we’re ESPN.

“Drop by a local outfit and pick up a suit. Full white with a bowler cap. Spare no expense.”

Instead, he showed up in his sweatshirt.

We went straight to work, Kenny shouting names, stats and betting lines to me as I hurried behind him, camera in hand, to interview a trainer whose name I would never remember, or a jockey whose only discernible quality was his accent.

This is a good time to mention that not only was this my first Kentucky Derby, but my first time at the track.

When I heard the name of horse trainer Nick Zito, I immediately thought of Barry and the San Francisco Giants, not Uncle Mo and Dialed In.

But our first day, we seemed to be making good progress despite Kenny’s celebrity.

At Churchill Downs, we are stopped constantly by hardcore horse racing fans who respect Mayne for his love of the sport — and many middle-aged females who respect him for his appearances on Dancing With The Stars.

As we hurry from the paddock to the winner’s circle shouts of “Kenny Mayne” rain down like ticker tape from the crowd.

Like a pro, he gives a cool nod in the direction of the adoration and moves forward with purpose. When there is time he stops for pictures with fans and signs autographs, with me standing behind him always to be known as “that guy that was with Kenny.”

By Thursday’s end, we had six interviews done — including one with eventual winning trainer Graham Motion of Animal Kingdom (see above video).

Friday began at 5:30 a.m., and we came out with a full head of steam, running from stable to stable crossing names off of our list as we went. With Mayne’s years of experience at the tracks, he’s made many friends, which helps when you want to interview the trainer for pre-race favorite Dialed In.

Trainers asked him to come meet their horses. He fed peppermints to Watch Me Go and got nipped by Mucho Macho Man.

By 10 a.m., we had all but three of our interviews done. Those, we decided, we would get in the paddock area around Saturday race time.

Kenny headed to the hotel to don his finest suit — the airline eventually found his luggage — while I headed to the media center to begin my edits.

When Kenny came back to the track, we ran into a road block.

We no longer had access to the paddock, which meant no access to the trainers and owners. We were going to fall three interviews short of our goal.

Kenny would not hear of it. I watched as he calmly and coolly navigated the inner workings of the Churchill Downs media operations — uh, he found a guy named Charlie — and got the passes.

On the grass in the paddock we got our final interview, Derby Kitten owner Ken Ramsey. He’s a gambling man who wears his smile on his sleeve.

Mission accomplished. Interview No. 20 was in the can and I ran off to finish my edits and send the interviews back to Bristol.

I left Kenny in the paddock smiling, mingling with the fans.

Follow Kenny Mayne on Twitter at @Kenny_Mayne and on his ESPN.com blog.

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