Roy Exum: This Day Was Once Special

Monday, April 29, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

There was a time when today was the most special of any day in the year. On the Monday morning before “The Run for the Roses” would be held on the first Saturday in May, my sports-writing buddies from across the country would light out just about dawn to make the pilgrimage to Louisville and Churchill Downs and, believe me, it was never a trip for the weak of heart.

Most of the writers from around America would stay out in Shively, a suburb close to the track, in a hotel with dozens of trainers, jockeys and assorted others, and every morning around 4 a.m. all week they had to put on extra help just to keep the coffee flowing. If you weren’t trudging through the mud on the backside before 5 o’clock you were late to work and, believe this, it was cold and damp every morning in Louisville before the sun came up.

Let me confess how it really worked. Once you got to the backside, you’d go to the Racing Secretary’s office and pick up a sheet on that afternoon’s entries. Then you’d visit the top Derby contenders’ barns and talk to owners, trainers and jockeys, gathering ample fodder to write knowledgeable and glowing stories every day.

Honestly, I knew little about thoroughbred racing in the first years. But I knew how to listen and soon it all made sense, the history and pageantry and pomp all coming together. Writing about horse racing is a hoot but there was one particularity I could never understand but enthralled all of us.

At every stop my fellow scribes and I would innocently ask if our celebrity-of-the-moment had any tips for that day’s races. “Yeah, I heard the No. 3 horse in the second race is good, put a little on the No. 8 horse in the sixth and go strong on the No. 3 in the seventh.” Somewhere else they’d whisper, “They’ve been holding the No. 4 horse back his last three trips. Bet him heavy in the fifth race.”

Understand, it didn’t matter if you could spell the names or who the jockey was – just the entry number. This would go on for a couple of hours and then we’d pool our check marks with other writers who had done the same. We’d go back to the hotel, sleep a little and then descend on the track around 1 p.m., ready for lunch and wagering about every 30 minutes all afternoon. You would write your stories between races but, trust me, nothing in the world is more fun than consistently winning money at a racetrack.

You’d bet $5 across the board (win, place and show for a total of $15) on a nag that had 15-to-1 odds and then laugh delightedly as “your horse” won by five lengths. Then it would happen again and again – not always – but enough where you never counted your money until the final race was over. You do that four or five races every day and then go to parties every night with the “swells” (really rich people) and you never wanted it to end.

Of course, you never got any sleep – and some guys got the gout from such a rich diet – but, lordy it was fun back in the day. The parties were unbelievable – one night in Louisville they actually had naked nymphets draped in gauze and zipping through the air on swings they’d hung in the trees. I didn’t mess with women like that but they were easy on the eyes.

We’d get back to the hotel around 1 o’clock in the morning, knowing our wake-up calls were down to three hours and ticking, but with hot coffee scalding our shaking fingers, we would somehow begin anew and repeat the delicious cycle. Oh, the times that were had in over 20 years of Kentucky merriment

I couldn’t guess how many Kentucky Derbies I covered but, as if drawn by a magnet, I can already tell you the early chalk for this Saturday is between unbeaten Verrazano and speedy Normandy Invasion, a horse that just went 5 furlongs in 59-flat! Verrazano has won four races this spring after not competing as a two-year-old, dazzling in the Tampa Bay Derby and Wood Memorial, while Normandy Invasion finished second in the Wood in a great challenge of speed and stamina.

Orb, a horse that won the Florida Derby in late March, is getting a lot of attention and so is Revolutionary, the Louisiana Derby winner with colorful jockey Calvin Burel of Louisiana in the irons. Obviously, the crowd favorite will be Goldensense because a part-owner is RAP Racing. “RAP” stands for “Richard A. Pitino,”  the same guy who just won the NCAA basketball championship at the University of Louisville.

A great story about Goldensense, too, is that Kevin Krigger is the jockey and not since 1902 has a black jockey won at Churchill Downs. Between racism and Jim Crow laws there are few black jockeys today after being so dominant in the late 1800s but Krigger, from the U.S. Virgin Islands, is a standout on the Southern California circuit and – suddenly but of course – a big UofL basketball fan.

Then again, there are dozens of stories that unfold each year. Gary Stephens, a 50-year-old grandfather who retired as a jockey in 2008, has toughened himself back into shape and will ride Oxbow this Saturday. Stephens is one of the greatest jockeys of all time, with reportedly more than 4,900 North American wins in more than 27,700 races.

I am telling you, there is nothing like the Kentucky Derby and this is a week, now that I’m getting old and gray, that still gives me a tingle.

royexum@aol.com


America

Some have said down through history If you last it's a mystery But I guess they don't know what they're talking about From the mountains down to the sea You've become such a habit with me America, Ame-er-ica Sammy Johns penned these words back in 1973. It was the end of a war or, more properly, a police action… a police action that cost the lives of 58,220 of our ... (click for more)

In Support Of Marty Haynes

Early voting is now in progress and continues through July 30, with election day being Aug. 4.   I am asking the voters of Hamilton County to join me in casting their vote for Marty Haynes, who is on the ballot for assessor of property. I know this office needs the continued leadership it has with the past assessors. My late husband, Roy Rumfelt, served under the last ... (click for more)

Hixson Man Charged With Sending Threatening Emails To General Sessions Court Judge

A 30-year-old Hixson man has been charged with making threats to kill General Sessions Court Judge Lila Statom after police said they found evidence to tie him to recent threats against the judge. David Lee Graham, of 1730 Colorado St., is charged with retaliation against a judge. His bond was raised to $100,000. Detective Ric Whaley said he had been conducting an investigation ... (click for more)

Rescuers Carry Injured 15-Year-Old Boy Out Of Pocket Wilderness

First responders spent Sunday afternoon rescuing an injured 15-year-old boy at the Pocket Wilderness at the foot of Mowbray Mountain. At 1:20 p.m. , a 911 call was made reporting a teenager had injured his ankle from cliff jumping at the "Blue Hole " at the Pocket Wilderness. Tennessee State Parks and the Mowbray Volunteer Fire Department responded to the scene and immediately ... (click for more)

McCallie's Viscomi Named To All-America Soccer Team

As he prepares to begin his senior year at McCallie, Drew Viscomi is still being honored for his junior soccer season. The most recent award for the dominant forward came this week as he was named to the All-America team for the Spring 2016 season. The highly-respected Top Drawer Soccer listed Viscomi as one of five second-team forwards out of 25 total players from across ... (click for more)

Another Big Week For Chattanooga Football Club

More than 10,000 fans gathered at Finley Stadium last Saturday to see a 5-3 penalty kick win over Miami United.   CFC keeper Gregga Hartley made a save and scored the winning penalty kick, helping his team to advance to the national semifinals on Saturday.  They will host Sonoma County Sol at 7:30 in the comfy confines of "Fort Finley"  Chattanooga is the top ... (click for more)