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.