If it's Kentucky Derby season, Jill Byrne is on the go.
As the host of the Churchill Downs paddock show, Byrne is well-known to Thoroughbred racing fans for her insight and commentary. She can be found on the Kentucky Derby trail in the months leading up to the first Saturday in May, putting the spotlight on contenders with the “Road to the Derby Series” video productions.
And Byrne visits the Churchill Downs' backstretch every morning, speaking to the connections of Kentucky Derby horses. Her daily “Backside Buzz” reports, co-hosted this year by Joe Kristofek, are always a popular feature on KentuckyDerby.com.
But Byrne is much more than one of Thoroughbred racing's top personalities.
As the Director of Programming and Senior Racing Analyst for Churchill Downs, Byrne supervises the Big Board production team, the Simulcast production team, the Track Announcer, the Bugler, the Paddock Show, Audio productions and more. After May 2, she'll oversee about 25 staff members, but that number probably doubles at Kentucky Derby time.
"I get to the barns around 6 in the morning and on Derby week, my work schedule can be as late as 11 or 12 at night," Byrne said. "It's just all day and all night sometimes, there are so many events that I have to do after the racing, give speeches, the trainer's dinner (on Tuesday night of Derby week), handicapping speeches for some of our sponsors and various groups. I always have to be ready for last-minute requests.
"Very long, non-stop days of go, go, go. It's grown with my new role, in charge of all the programming, the simulcast signal and the Big Board show, and all the content. Lots of planning and oversight to make sure everything will be right.
"I go from one thing to the next, non-stop and crazy," she adds with a laugh.
Horse Racing Roots
Byrne hails from Charlottesville, Virginia.
"We had a big farm and I grew up riding show jumpers," Byrne said. "My Dad was a horse trainer and he put me on my first racehorse at age 12 and I was addicted from that day on. I went to the track with him, Belmont, Saratoga, Gulfstream on every school vacation and as soon as I finished college."
Byrne's dad, Peter Howe, started training Thoroughbreds in the late 1960s/early 70s. He had been in the show horse business before moving to jumpers (steeplechase horses) and then took over a string of flat horses. After approximately 25 years in the business, Howe retired in the late 1990s.
He trained a pair of champions, the Eclipse Award-winning older filly & mare Proud Delta & leading steeplechaser Soothsayer.
"From an early age, my sister and I had to take care of our horses, our ponies and the rest of the horses in the barn. There was no having grooms do our work for us," Byrne explained. "We were right in the trenches doing as much as anybody else."
Dad helped install a work ethic that continues to guide her.
"If anything my dad, the more I was around the barns, was tougher on me than probably anybody that worked for him because he never wanted people to think that I was going to get anywhere because I was Peter Howe's daughter. I earned everything, where I was going to go to and what I was going to do, by working harder than everyone else.
"He was very adamant about that, learning from the ground up what everybody does. I've always been such a barn rat, I love being around the people at the barns, the horses and everything about that way of life."
Byrne worked as an exercise rider and assistant trainer, first for future Hall of Famers Scotty Schulhofer and John Veitch, and later for ex-husband Patrick Byrne, who conditioned champions Favorite Trick and Countess Diana; and 1998 Breeders' Cup Classic winner Awesome Again.
She stopped exercising horses around 1998 but continued to serve as an assistant trainer and barn manager, and did the stable bookkeeping, until around 2005.
Byrne began working for Churchill Downs as a freelancer in 1999, filling in for previous paddock host Mike Battaglia from time to time. Her duties continued to increase over the years and she was hired full-time in 2009.
I asked about the first time she stepped on the grounds at Churchill Downs.
"The first time I stepped 'hoof' on the racetrack was in 1995 when I was galloping horses and I worked my first horse at Churchill Downs," Byrne recalled. "I will never forget looking up and seeing the Twin Spires and as a huge fan of Secretariat when I was a little girl, to think that I was racing over the same track he won the Kentucky Derby, it was quite special."
Getting the Scoop
Having spent time on the Churchill Downs' backstretch in years past, it's easy to appreciate Byrne's talents. Her familiarity is quickly recognizable -- she seems to know to everyone -- and Byrne is never one to put on airs, speaking to prominent trainers like Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher one minute and an exercise rider the next.
"What goes on behind the scenes, that people only see the finished product, is remarkable," Byrne said. "It's such an amazing family (on the backstretch), everybody has a story. And they all have one thing in common: they love the horse and that's where it begins."
Given the magnitude of the Kentucky Derby, it's a pressured-filled environment for horsemen and cantankerous attitudes are not uncommon. I asked Byrne about the interviewing process on the backstretch.
"I've built a great reputation and gained credibility because of my background in the industry," Byrne said. "Having grown up in the horse racing industry, having been involved in the barns at all levels from such an early age, owners, trainers and breeders have known me for so long and understand that I know what I'm doing.
"I know the industry inside out, I know that side of it so well and there's a mutual respect that I'm not going to misrepresent them or the industry in any way. I'm not going to ask stupid questions. I will get good answers because they know that I understand what they're talking about. I'm not looking for that negative story, a headliner to put somebody in a bad light -- I'm looking to promote the industry."
Does she ever have a difficult time getting owners/trainers to comment about their horses?
"I never really have. I think it goes back to that respect that they have for me, knowing I'm not going to ask a dumb question. I know certainly I'll get the proverbial answer from some, 'Everything's great, everything's great.' You can read between the lines and understand there's a basic answer they're going to tell everyone.
"But they've all always been very accommodating with me. I know when to leave them alone, know when to approach them. I know what to ask and what not to ask. They in turn give me good answers because they know I'm not going to set them up to look stupid."
The amount of people on the backstretch, both media and spectators, can be overwhelming on Kentucky Derby week
"Most trainers are very accommodating; they understand not everyone is an expert about this business," Byrne said. "They understand in order to get the general public and casual fan to see how great this industry is, they have to be accessible to some of these outlets that have nothing to do with horse racing, just to get it out to a different medium."
People watching the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby simulcast feeds have grown accustomed to seeing Byrne's elegant fashion attire on both days. I asked about the selection process.
"I shop at local unique boutiques in Louisville and also incorporate Vineyard Vines, the official style of the Kentucky Derby into my outfits," she explained. "We do a social media contest and let the fans choose a Fascinator for me to wear on Oaks day and a hat for Derby day all from our official licensee."
How does Byrne wind down after the Kentucky Derby?
"Usually Sunday after Derby is another full day, checking on the Derby winner and wrapping up all the major production elements from the event. I try to take Monday and Tuesday off to sleep and relax. We start right back up racing on Thursday so there is little time to rest until (the meet ends) about the first week of July."
Byrne is a consummate professional and after taking up plenty of her time on a busy week, I offered my thanks and mentioned how easy it is to talk to her.
"It goes back to the way I was brought up by my mom and dad," she said.