When the Kentucky Derby field emerges from the Churchill Downs tunnel onto the track Saturday, some of the entrants' loudest cheering sections won't be found in the stands or on millionaires' row. The grooms who pour the feed, wrap the legs, and clean the tack may not get much attention from the news crews, but many of them are their horses' best friends and biggest advocates.
Bridget Lambert, groom and assistant trainer for trainer Billy Gowan, has dreamed of working with a Derby horse her entire career. A second-generation racetracker, Lambert has been on the backstretch her whole life. As former shed manager for trainer Don Von Hemel, Lambert handled Preakness runner Our Gatsby and Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile winner Caleb's Posse but despite her Derby dreaming, she has never taken one of her charges to the Run for the Roses.
In her dual role as assistant and groom, Lambert's days are long, kicking off at 4:30 a.m. and sometimes not finishing until 6 p.m., but she enjoys the work.
Part of her daily tasks include the care of Derby entrant Ride On Curlin, who comes to the race with 55 qualifying points after a successful season in Arkansas. Despite the yellow sign outside the colt's stall which reads “Caution: This Horse Bites,” Lambert insists the feisty bay isn't wicked.
“He's definitely all boy,” she said. “But he's not mean.
“This is probably the only horse I've ever had with the heart he's got. He's all class, this horse.”
The sign, however, is not just a suggestion. Before the Rebel, Lambert recalled playing with the colt when he got his teeth around her thumb, right at the joint. She had to call Gowan to pry the colt's jaws open but pointed out that a meaner horse would've just removed the appendage while he had the chance.
After working closely with her horses over such long days, Lambert has come to know them inside and out. She notices everything from gait to mood to new games (including Ride On Curlin's love of offering his tongue to passersby).
Despite the long hours and the rollercoaster nature of the work, Lambert is thrilled to see her charge preparing for the race of his life.
“I just love my horses,” she said. “They're like my kids. They've made my living all my life.
“He's a cool horse. I'm very blessed to have him.”
She is even more proud that one of her two children will be coming in for the race.
“That means a lot, because I raised them both on the racetrack,” she said. “It's exciting for them to see that Mom finally made it.”
Lambert and her son will watch from the paddock, where they can avoid the crowds after Gowan gives jockey Calvin Borel a leg up on Ride On Curlin.
And what does she think of his chances?
“Someone told me a long time ago that whenever you're scared of one horse, you don't need to be in the race. It's us they should be afraid of. That's my opinion.”
New to the Paulick Report? Click here to sign up for our daily email newsletter to keep up on this and other stories happening in the Thoroughbred industry.
Copyright © 2019 Paulick Report.