All eyes are on Pimlico race track in Baltimore this weekend for the running of The Preakness, the second leg in horse racing's Triple Crown.
There's only one horse that can win racing's ultimate prize. Always Dreaming came from behind to win the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago.
Few people watched that race more closely than Erin Birkenhauer. The Alvaton woman is a key employee of West Point Thoroughbreds, owned by her father Terry Finley. The company is a minority owner of Always Dreaming.
She was in the owner's box at Churchill Downs when the horse won the Derby. "I think it took me a couple of seconds to really start to cry because I was just in a state of shock," Birkenhauer said. "But that's alright. If you win the Derby what else are you supposed to do besides cry."
Birkenhauer lives on a five acre ranch in Alvaton, about 100 miles south of Churchill Downs, with her husband, Daniel, their three dogs, six chickens and a horse named Seminary Ridge. She'll be in Baltimore for the big race.
Always Dreaming is already in Maryland, as he left two days after the Derby to give him plenty of time to get adjusted to the track and to his famous Stall 40, the one reserved for Kentucky Derby winners. Secretariat and Seattle Slew were past occupants.
"I think when you’re the Derby winner it’s important to get there and get settled in because there’s so much more hoopla around you and so much more action and with him coming into the Derby, he was pretty fired up," Birkenhauer says. "At this point, it’s not fitness. It’s keeping him happy, keeping him settled. I’d love to put bubble wrap around him. Keeping him happy, keeping him sound. That’s all we need to do."
That, plus keeping 60 other horses and 500 other owners in their company happy, as well. It’s a big job being the racing manager and director of communications.
"I’m the liaison between our trainers and our clients," she explains. "It’s tough to actively compete. I mean this job, no lie is all horses. We run a lot on weekends, so there are a lot of weekends, you know I’m not complaining, but I’ve got to be glued to the computer or glued to the TV, sending e-mails and making sure people know what’s going on."
Most of the people in Birkenhauer's position are men, and much older than the 29-year-old. She’s been with the company full-time for seven years, ever since the summer after her junior year at the University of Kentucky, and she says she’s more than earned her way.
"I’m very lucky that I have my family connections. I think more and more young women like myself are making names for themselves in the business. Some people are starting to take notice, and I think it’s getting easier and easier for women to get noticed and really have a career in this business. But there’s no doubt it’s tough."
But tough or not, Birkenhauer says she wouldn’t trade it for the world.
"Winning the Preakness is special, but it’s not the Derby. A lot of guys know that, and they know the chances of their horse coming back in two weeks and winning the Preakness is slim. So now that the Derby’s over, a lot of people kind of take a deep breath and look to the second half of the year."
But not us," she says with a laugh. We’re trying to win the Triple Crown."