VIENNA, Va., May 5, 2012 — And they’re OFF!!!
With those three magic words, the greatest three minutes in sports takes place Saturday afternoon, May 5 with the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby.
And as someone who has been to about ten Derbies, from grandstand seats to the highly prized box seats on the top floor, I can tell you that it is not over-hyped. Once you have gone, you will understand.
It’s the sound of the horses as they come pounding down the track, making the turn from home, passing the ¾ pole, and then wildly surging to cross the finish line. It’s the sound of many thousands of people all screaming at the top of their lungs for their favorites. And then jumping in elation, holding the winning ticket or sadly tossing another colored slip of paper onto the ground with the others.
There is always a discussion over how best to select the winner, and each has its pros and cons. Real bettors study the track charts, the “green sheet” and any other statistical analysis that can be found. They know who the sire and dam were and what THEIR records were. They know who bred the horse and from what stable it came.
They know the trainers by heart and can tell you who had a heart attack last month at a race in Dubai, of all places; who just recovered from some ailment of disease; who is the most “worthy” to see the blanket of red roses place across the neck and withers of his (or her) horse.
They consider all the backgrounds and what the experts are saying. One local sports writer here, Andrew Beyer, has even developed his own rating system calibrating the horse’s past performance, breeding, etc. into who has the best chance of winning. Not sure if Andy’s system has come out on top or behind, but it’s there.
Betting the Little Guy
And everyone has a favorite jockey — usually the last one he took home a winning ticket on. If you are from Maryland, you automatically swear that Kent Desormeaux walks on water. Kentuckians are more prone to look to Louisiana’s Calvin Borel, the rail-rider, or Pat Day when he was winning every race. If your jockey hails from California, he may bring West Coast savvy into the mix.
In the early days of the Derby, which began just less than 10 years after the end of the Civil War, all of the jockeys were diminutive black men, who could ride the heck out of a race and set the bar very high for those who would follow.
In later years, the ethnicity seemed to shift to Latino or Hispanic guys, and we have Martin Garcia this year, along with Mario Gutierrez, Jose Lezcano, and the like.
Other annual favorites are Julien Leparoux, who grew up in a racing family in France, and Corey Nakatani, among others. And a newcomer has just as much chance of winning as an old-timer. It depends on the horse, the other horses, the weather, the track condition, and the Lord who guides them all.
Trainers and Breeders
Then there are those who swear by certain trainers and their stables. Bob Baffert (Bodemeister) and Todd Pletcher (Gemologist) are two gentlemen who have seen the circle of roses on more than one occasion, and there is always a sentimental favorite – this year that category would include Michael Matz, whose Union Rags occupies the same stall as his predecessor, the beloved Barbaro did. And old-timers who have been around the track awhile will attach to D. Wayne Lukas (Optimizer.) And so it goes.
There is a place for everyone at Churchill Downs, even for the bettors who go by the color of the horse. You have bays, browns, blacks, roan, and gray. Hansen is an almost white horse, beautiful to behold, and Creative Cause is a roan or gray. There are some of us who have been betting grays for 20 years or more and the darn horses never win, but we keep trying. And more than one lady bets in keeping with the color of the jockey’s silks – she just has to put her ten on the one in fuchsia or the other one in teal blue. Works as well as any other “system.”
Prayer for Safety
The most you can hope for is a good, strong, race with no injuries. Everyone who saw the race where Eight Belles, as gutsy a filly as ever ran against the boys, crossed the finish line only to break both front ankles and fall, still remembers the collective gasp from the crowd, and the silence. She was euthanized on the track. It makes you wonder if the animal is worth the abuse and abuse it may well be. And then there was the death of Barbaro, whose large statue stands at the Downs.
Breeders keep breeding bigger and heavier horses that seem to run on those same thin, spindly legs. If they were cars, power to weight ratio would be instantly invoked and racing would quit. Somehow we think horses are not in the same league, and that’s a shame. Strong men cry and well they should.
What’s In the Cup?
We can’t forget the beverage du jour — the Mint Julep sold at the track in a plastic souvenir glass, but much better (if you are a Bourbon drinker) in a silver julep cup. Chill the cup, muddle fresh mint leaves in it and remove; fill with crushed ice and a tiny bit of simple syrup, and cover with bourbon garnished with fresh mint. It is the nectar of the gods that day and extremely potent under a hot sun when consumed in pairs with enthusiasm!
So now you’ve been there, you either sprang for a box seat high up, legally or otherwise, or you sat in Clubhouse grounds areas, or in the grandstand on a numbered spot on the benches. If you are under 20 you may have been able to go into the infield, where you will see many an interesting sight, but not glimpse a horse.
Other Worthy Attractions
Take your winnings and leave happy. Go out for dinner at Vincenzo’s on Fifth Street, down the street at the famous Seelbach or Kunz’s, or further out in the suburbs where many fine restaurants can be found. If you have extra time, take in the Hillerich and Bradsby Baseball Museum on Main Street, marked outside by the largest bat in the world.
Check out a play during your stay at the Kentucky Arts Center. There are so many places to see and things to do, it’s well worth a few extra days, but begin at the Derby Museum right next to the racetrack – it’s one of the best done museums you will see.
But whatever you do (along with packing comfortable shoes) do go, have a good time, bet and drink responsibly, and when you stand to sing “My Old Kentucky Home” with the crowd, it’s OK to have a tear well up in your eye — we Kentuckians still do. Above all, have a wonderful time and start making plans now for Derby 139 next year!!
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On a personal note, this column is dedicated to a very dear friend of mine who died a month ago after a debilitating stroke. Dr. David E. Jackson was our vet for almost 30 years, and each May he and I would discuss Derby horses and which one to bet on, and I’d bring him a new Derby glass full of candy. We missed it this year, and continue to miss a wonderful friend of all animals, including horses.
Rest In Peace, my friend, and do say hello to Barbaro and Eight Belles.
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