For Kentucky Derby horses, sunrise is when the work begins

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Some horses beat the sunrise over the backside at Churchill Downs for their workouts. Other colts await the first light and warmth of day before preparing for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, the biggest race of their lives.

They go about their business amid a peaceful quiet that makes the historic track so special every spring.

Workouts have varied this week from walking around the barns to light jogging or graceful gallops beneath the famed Twin Spires on the frontstretch. Full-speed training is brief but closely watched from key spots around Churchill to gauge the horse’s readiness for the 145th Derby.

Twenty horses are expected to go off in Saturday’s running over 1 1/4 mile in the first leg of racing’s Triple Crown. This year’s group must follow the tough act set by Justify, whose 2 1/2-length victory here last May set the stage for him becoming racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner and second in four years.

Game Winner has become the 9-2 new favorite after Omaha Beach was scratched Wednesday evening with a breathing problem. Bodexpress has taken the open spot after being on the outside looking in.

Weather has been favorable this week with the horses, workers and spectators enjoying the early-morning chill under clear skies.

Roosters crow as the thoroughbreds slowly exit their stalls and head toward the dirt. Coaxing is needed to get some into their workouts, but they soon hit stride during the short 15-minute training window for Derby and Kentucky Oaks contenders.

Just as they’re getting warmed up, it’s all over. Much like those tense two minutes they’ll experience on Saturday.

From there it’s back to the barn to cool down and get bathed before a group of admirers armed with camera phones aiming to get the good side of a colt who might end the week draped in a garland of roses.

Some horses drink in the attention as warm water evaporates from their massive physiques. Others are a little feisty and look ready to kick, a hazard their handlers carefully try to avoid by staying in front of those powerful hind legs.

Trainers ultimately provide a calming sight as the suppliers of peppermints or carrots stuffed in their pockets. With the hard work done for the day, the horses look forward to feed and rest as noise from nearby races occasionally breaks the quiet.

Just another day at Churchill Downs.