How do you Derby? A Photo Essay with Jamie Newell

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April 29th, 2021

Photo essay by photographer Jamie Newell

What is it about the Kentucky Derby?

For two minutes, on the first Saturday in May, it is the epicenter of the world, but it’s on the minds of American horsemen and racing fans all year long. Always, everyone wants to make it to the Derby.

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Medina Spirit (Photo by Jamie Newell/TwinSpires.com)

No other race in America is more hallowed, more imposing, more famous, or more revered. It’s where kings and queens compete against the everyman, and all are in for a chance; all compete for the same, unparalleled glory.

On what was supposed to be Derby Day last year, when the race was postponed due to a global pandemic, fans paid their respects to the event, posting signs on the gates outside Churchill Downs. No one had ever seen people mourn over the absence of an event.

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Churchill Downs (Photo by Jamie Newell/TwinSpires.com)

The Kentucky Derby is much more than a horse race.

More than anything, the Kentucky Derby, and the week that precedes it, is a feeling. And those who have shared in that feeling are a part of a special club.

The Kentucky Derby is many things.

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Soup and Sandwich (Photo by Jamie Newell/TwinSpires.com)

It’s the release of winter’s bonds, the first deep breath of springtime; the first injection of life in the year.

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Kentucky Derby favorite Essential Quality outside trainer Brad Cox's barn at Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY. Apr 27, 2021. (Photo by Jamie Newell/TwinSpires.com)

It’s an energy, an undeniable buzz that infects everyone in the city with joy and anticipation.

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Sainthood (Photo by Jamie Newell/TwinSpires.com)

It’s the orange eye of the sun rising over the twin spires while horses blow trails of smoke around the storied oval.

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Known Agenda (Photo by Jamie Newell/TwinSpires.com)

It’s a reunion for far-flung comrades, a communal experience of people of every race and from every walk of life; it’s a place where we make reverie with complete strangers for the love of this crazy, great spectacle.

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Essential Quality and Mandaloun gate schooling at Churchill Downs. (Photo by Jamie Newell/TwinSpires.com)

It’s the sound of the brass band starting up “My Old Kentucky Home” as the horses walk onto the track.

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Essential Quality gets a bath after morning trackwork in preparation for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY. Apr 29, 2021. (Photo by Jamie Newell/TwinSpires.com)

It is the most transportive day in sports; to go to the Kentucky Derby, to be drenched in the atmosphere, the history, the pageantry, and the adrenaline, is to be one with the ages; to go to the Kentucky Derby and be a part of the day gives you the time-honored tradition of witnessing something so unique, it must be experienced to be understood.

There is nothing grander than watching 20 horses break in front of a crowd of 150,000 people, with every one of those voices ringing in your ears, to watch time stop, in a life-quenching drama as horses from across the nation come together in a race to the wire. Here, stories collide; here, anything can and will happen. It’s a glory of the senses—addictive, beautiful, violent, and uplifting; it’s the greatest rush of emotions you can experience in two minutes.

If you’re lucky, like me, you don’t have to buy a ticket to witness it. You do work to the point of collapse, but in trade, you get to crouch in front of the front seat, on the sacred dirt, and become awash in history as it charges by, where just for a brief moment in time, you become a part of something people will talk about for centuries to come. There is nothing like the feeling of immortality passing you a glance.

There is nothing like the Kentucky Derby.