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Photo Finish: Culver students picture perfect presenting colors at Derby, Oaks

Tom Coyne

Culver Military Academy's Lancers presented the colors before the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby. (Photo by Sean "Skip" Nicholls)


Millions of people from around the world watched as 11 Culver Academies students rode their horses onto the track and presented the colors before the starts of the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks horse races.

Six cadets who are part of Culver Military Academy’s Lancers, an honor unit comprising the best horsemen of the Black Horse Troop, and five members of the Equestriennes, Culver Girls Academy’s mounted honor organization, were at the Churchill Downs on Saturday to see Mystik Dan win in the Derby’s first three-way photo finish since 1947.

 The Lancers presented the colors on Saturday before the 150th Kentucky Derby, which was seen by 16.7 million viewers, the biggest audience for the race since 1989. There were 156,710 people at the track. The Equestriennes presented the colors on Friday before the Kentucky Oaks, which was seen by 272,000 TV viewers on USA Network. There were 107,236 people at the track.   

Both groups rode down the stretch in front of the grandstand before the races carrying the American flag, the Kentucky flag and the flag of Culver Academies. They presented the colors for the playing of the national anthem and were cheered by thousands of enthusiastic fans.

The students said seeing the Derby was the highlight of the trip.

“I’ve been to five-thousand-million horse races in my entire life, and nothing compared to that,” said Jayden Hall ’24, whose father is a horse trainer. “It was so much fun.”

Jake Dolan ’25 agreed.

“There’s nothing like the Derby. The feeling you get when you are walking on the racetrack and there’s 150,000 people looking at you there and another 16 million on TV. Your heart starts pounding. You look into the crowd, and everyone is chanting ‘USA!’ It’s amazing.”

Their adventure at Churchill Downs began with the running of the 150th Kentucky Oaks, a 1⅛-mile race for 3-year-old fillies, aired on USA Network. The race was won by Thorpedo Anna.

Hall said she was nervous before presenting the colors because she knew a lot of her father’s friends in the horse racing industry would be watching to see her. She said once they started warming up before presenting the colors and they practiced “wheeling.”

She said most of the fans couldn’t see the Equestriennes when they got onto the track, and she could feel the anticipation building. That’s when her nerves subsided.

“Once you hit a spot on the track where they can see you, everyone started cheering,” she said.


Culver Girls Acdemy's Equestriennes presented the colors before the 150th running of the Kentucky Oaks. (Photo by Capt. Sean "Skip" Nicholls)



Hall said she’s performed before big crowds previously, including at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo and the Conceal Grand-Prix Eventing Showcase in Aiken, South Carolina. But she said carrying the colors at Churchill Downs is different.

“You feel important, proud to be the country that you’re in,” she said.

While the national anthem played there was a man in front of the Equestriennes videotaping them and repeatedly shouting: “Good job! Good job!”

“It was so funny,” she said.

Dolan was by the finish line for the race.

“That was amazing,” he said.

Hall said the Lancers were so excited for them when they met back at the stalls.

“They were all excited and said, ‘We saw you on TV!’ ” she said. “Everyone was giving each other hugs. It was a super sweet moment.”

Dolan said everything went perfectly for the cadets on Derby day, even though they were out on the track longer than they expected. He said they thought they would be out there for the national anthem and be done. But before the national anthem there were paratroopers and then a wait of three or four minutes.

“It is the longest three or four minutes because you don’t know what’s happening behind you. Because you don’t want to be caught looking around,” he said.

Dolan said he tried to look straight ahead at a TV in a suite to see what was happening, but he couldn’t see.

“Then when the national anthem starts playing you get that sense of relief. Because you’re like, ‘OK, we made it. Everything is fine,’ ” he said.

He said when the crowd started cheering, the cadets all began to smile.

“It’s a feeling like none other,” he said. “There was a lot of pride.”

Hall said the Derby was exciting, saying she and her friends watched from near the starting gates.

“We all got video of them coming around the final turn,” Hall said.

She was cheering for Sierra Leone, who she knew was a strong finisher, so she felt good about the horse’s chance at the point. Sierra Leone finished second.

Dolan, who watched the Derby from a suite, said he couldn’t believe the finish.

“He won by a nostril. To see that happen, when you have three horses going the exact same speed and you can’t tell who won, that’s really cool,” Dolan said. “The crowd just went wild.”

Hall loved seeing everyone in the Derby outfits.

“It was super fun to see everyone dressed up,” she said. “There were so many big hats. It’s like a humungous fashion show. It’s so much fun.”

Hall and Dolan both talked about how the Equestriennes and Lancers worked so well together.

“We work so hard in practice. We went to Aiken in early March. We started practicing together twice a week in early November,” she said.  “We got to experience the trials and tribulations of getting ready for something – the victories, the successes, the not-so-good things. We experience them together and it brings us closer together.”

Dolan said he can see how far Culver’s horsemanship program has come in the three years he’s been at the Academies.

“It was great seeing all that come together, all the effort Captain (Sean) Nicholls has been putting in,” he said. “For us to work together and put on such a good display and get so many good remarks about it was great. The amount of respect we got was amazing. I’ve never felt more proud to be at Culver.”


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