Local man revving up for Derby

Once a horse racing fan, always a horse racing fan. Particularly if you’re a native Kentuckian and your focus is on the Kentucky Derby.

For about 20 years — starting when he was 13 — Brian Gardner, of Rochester, has been caught up with the fervor of Derby festivities and historic Churchill Downs, where the 134th edition of the Run for the Roses will take place a week from today in Louisville.

Gardner, his wife, family and several friends from Rochester will be attending Derby festivities from Thursday through Sunday. "We’ll take in everything we can," he said.

Overall, Louisville celebrates the Derby for two full weeks prior to the race. All told, more than 1 million visitors take over Louisville during that time, while a lucky 150,000 fans will be at Churchill Downs to see the race in person, including the Gardner contingent.

Gardner was born in Louisville and grew up in nearby Lebanon. His first trip for a day of watching thoroughbred horse racing at Churchill Downs came when he was 13, in company with his parents and two younger brothers.


"It was the first Saturday after Derby Day and we all got a free picture of the Derby winner, Winning Colors. I guess that started my interest in horse racing," he said. "From that time on, I have been drawn to watch these amazing animals run, and now I invite other people to share my interest."

While attending pharmacy school at the University of Kentucky-Lexington, Gardner introduced his future wife, Jamie, to horse racing, and they often traveled the 75 miles or so to Churchill Downs to view the action.

When they were married in 1999, "We treated our family and wedding party to a day at the races there," he recalled.

After living in Louisville for a year while Brian completed a pharmacy practice residency, he and Jamie moved to Rochester, accepting jobs at the pediatric pharmacy at Saint Marys Hospital and Mayo Clinic’s outpatient pharmacy, respectively.

The 750-mile drive to Louisville hasn’t stopped the Gardners from traveling home to Kentucky to celebrate Derby festivities with family and friends. They have been doing that the past six years, and this year is no exception.

Friends with them this year include Phil Kuper and Amanda Schlein, and Joel and Dawn Dubbles. They all will attend the various pre-Derby events in addition to seeing the race itself the afternoon of May 3. Tickets range from $150 to several thousand dollars each, "but they’re worth it," Gardner said.

For the past three years, the Gardners’ young daughters, Natalie and Lauren, have gone along, too. "They get to see the pre-Derby events and attend various festivities, and also visit their cousins and the rest of the family," said Brian.

One of the pre-Derby highlights is a party given by Brian’s cousin, along with some of his business associates, that started in 1989 in a backyard with just a few friends attending. "But in just a few years that gathering grew into a party that now draws more than 1,000 people. It’s held at a rented pavilion with food, drink and two live bands," according to Brian.


Other pre-Derby events at Churchill Downs include Dawn at the Downs, a free event on Thursday when you can watch the horses run while training on the track, and Kentucky Oaks Day on Friday, where races are held that don’t involve Derby entrants.

Some other Rochester friends who have gone with the Gardners in the past include Kent and Stephanie Stevens in 2002; Lisa Buss in 2003 and 2007; and Scott and Stacy VanBenschoten in 2004.

"Lots of my co-workers have caught Derby fever by now. I even place small bets on their behalf when I get to the track," explained Brian.

Which horse is going to win this year?

"Don’t know," said Gardner. "Some of the top choices are Big Brown, the betting favorite, Pyro and Colonel John. We’ll just have to wait and see."

There will be a Rochester group cheering on the winner.

• Read about Gardner’s trips to the Derby Festival — page F4

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