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Culver Academies students present colors at Kentucky Derby, Oaks

Tom Coyne
Culver Academies' Lancers present the colors before the running of the Kentucky Derby. 

May 12, 2023

Eleven Culver Academies students presented the colors before more than 100,000 people and national TV audiences at the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby horse races, continuing the legacy of the Black Horse Troop and Equestriennes riding in premier events.

Five Culver Girls Academy students who are part of the Equestriennes, CGA’s mounted honor organization, and six Culver Military Academy cadets who are part of the Lancers, an honor unit comprising the best horsemen of the Black Horse Troop, took part in the ceremonies for two of the oldest contested sporting events in the United States. The students presented the colors for the national anthem before the big races last Friday and Saturday.

They rode their horses down the stretch in front of the grandstand at Churchill Downs before the big races, being introduced to the crowd while carrying the American flag, the Kentucky flag, and the flag of Culver Academies. They stood still for the playing of the national anthem, and then rode off, cheered on by thousands of enthusiastic fans, many of them wearing outrageous outfits.

“It's so cool to see how much they cheer,” said Payton Kovanda CGA ’23. “The cheering brings all the anticipation up. It just makes you so excited.”

Organizers sent the Equestriennes out a little bit late and the Lancers out a little too early, but both squads adjusted and performed flawlessly.

“They both did great jobs,” said Capt. Sean “Skip” Nicholls, Culver Academies’ director of horsemanship. “It was fantastic.”

An Instagram post of the event can be seen here.


Alexandra Orendain, a member of the Equestriennes at Culver Academies, preparing to present the colors before the running of the Kentucky Oaks.


The Kentucky Derby is the most-watched horse race in the United States. A crowd of 150,335 was in attendance for the race on Saturday and nearly 15 million people watched the “Run for the Roses” on NBC, making it the most watched sporting event on TV since the Super Bowl in February.

The Kentucky Oaks, which draws the third largest horse-racing crowd each year with a $1.25 million purse, drew a crowd of 106,381. The race, a 1⅛-mile run for 3-year-old fillies, aired on USA Network.

“It’s great because it puts Culver out in the public eye on a grand scale,” Nicholls said. “These are generally horse people, so it’s great for Culver because it shows off Culver at its best ability because a lot of horses wouldn’t cope with being in front of that big a crowd.”

The riders also showed their composure before the crowd and millions watching on TV, he said.

On Friday the students witnessed Pretty Mischievous, ridden by Tyler Gaffalione, beat Gambling Girl by a neck, to win at 10-1 odds. Then on Saturday they saw Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano, who had been winless in 15 previous Kentucky Derby races, win riding a colt named Mage at 15-1 odds.

The Culver students were amazed at the speed and power of the horses.

“It’s so exhilarating. You see it on TV and you think it’s going to be the same in person. But you can hear the power of the horses by their hooves hitting the ground,” Kovanda said.

Jacob Maibach ’23 described the race experience as “insane.”

“They were moving! They are incredible, incredible animals,” Maibach said. “They literally look they're just floating around the track.”

On Friday the Equestriennes started by brushing the horses, giving them fresh water, cleaning their stalls and then putting the saddles and bridles on for a late morning warm up to calm the horses and get them accustomed to the area. They then bathed the horses and braided the horses’ manes and tails. They then had some down time to explore the area, shop and watch some of the early races. They then tacked up their horses and took part in the rides.

The boys helped the girls on Friday, then the girls helped the boys on Saturday.

“Being able to like help each other and have a trip together is a really good way to bond together and make the teams closer,” Kovanda said.

Maibach said it was an amazing feeling riding out onto the track and turning right.

“You just see the stands and it's just a sea of people,” Maibach said.

He compared it to the scene in “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace,” when Anakin Skywalker is in the pod race.

“You feel like you're in the race. You feel like you’re prepping to ride your horse as fast as you possibly can around the track. It's a surreal experience,” he said. “I did everything I could just to soak it in as much as I could.”

Kovanda said it was a great feeling walking off the track after presenting the colors.

“You’re smiling the whole time. It’s a powerful moment because it’s something most people never get to do,” she said.

Kovanda said both she and her parents, who were at the event, were flooded with texts from people who said they saw her on TV.

The Lancers and Equestriennes said a lot of people asked them about Culver Academies, while others told them about people they knew who went to Culver.

“A lot of people were saying, “My friend went to Culver.” Or, “My roommate went to Culver.” Or they’d say, “I’m a Culver alum,” Kovanda said. “So it was cool to see how many people are actually tied in to Culver.”

The Black Horse Troop and the Equestriennes have marched in presidential inaugurations, and taken part in events surrounding the Indianapolis 500, the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, and the renowned World Equestrian Games.

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