Recalling all the great memories of the Kentucky Derby

May 1, 2018 3:10 AM

Saturday’s Kentucky Derby is always something all sports fans eagerly await, this one included. Yet, it’s not just the race itself that’s significant to many of us; it’s the memories that go along with it.

For this writer, it’s an important reminder to look back to learn a few lessons from past triumphs and mistakes – at the track and away from it – and a chance to think about the future. A successful handicapper knows a proper analysis of both is required to select a winner in the big race.

The Kentucky Derby properly reminds me to do a bit of “self-handicapping” each year, as well.

Having been to the Belmont Stakes 10 times, it’s odd I never made it to a Kentucky Derby in person. With the everyday fellow, like myself, who is more a fan of the sport rather than a gambler, I have no desire to even go. Big events that now tend to squeeze the little guy out with exorbitant prices to park, enter and buy a beer just are not for me.

They never were.

I’m not too upset Churchill Downs and most other major sporting events have now shoved the regular folks aside. Not much point in worrying about those things of which you have no control. But I do thank Churchill Downs for giving me a moment each year to think about past Kentucky Derby days and what they mean to me.

My late mother, often described as a “complicated” person, always had a Kentucky Derby party and I remember a few of them as youngster. In her later years, she continued to have them, even though her pool of friends had seriously declined. She celebrated the race each year and was one of the few people I ever knew who liked a mint julep.

One of my early memories is the 1964 race, won by Northern Dancer. As a 13-year-old, I couldn’t bet, but I watched. After the Preakness win that followed, I observed on television as my older brother and his buddies journeyed to Aqueduct (they held the Belmont Stakes there that year because Belmont was being renovated) to attend the big race. I gave him two bucks to bet on the nose for me and that became my first losing bet. All these years later, I still can’t believe Northern Dancer lost to Quadrangle. I wish I had kept that losing ticket from the race with its colored ink and eye-catching pattern, but I didn’t.

The years rolled by and so did the Derby winners. I never missed watching on television and in 1973 I got a chance to see Secretariat, but not in the Derby, at Belmont. He won the Triple Crown and I was there. I bet on Sham, another losing ticket.

In 1978, I watched the Derby from River Downs along the Ohio River in Cincinnati. Affirmed edged Alydar by a little more than a length. Living in Dayton at the time, I would go to River Downs in the afternoon and bet the trotters, my first love, at night at Latonia, now Turfway Park, in Kentucky. Those betting doubleheaders were fun. I met some nice fellows at River Downs. We weren’t really friends, but I’d hang out with them and always looked forward to those days with them at River Downs followed up by Latonia.

Fast forward to 1985. By then, I had been to the Belmont many other times including witnessing all of Woody Stephens’ five-straight winners in addition to both Pleasant Colony and Spectacular Bid having their Triple Crown efforts spoiled before that. In 1985, I watched Spend a Buck from a going away party in suburban Cleveland. I was taking a new job at CNN and was getting ready to begin the drive to Atlanta the next day. Spend a Buck was a real speedball and I liked him to win, but had no way to make a bet.

Next year, 1986, in Atlanta, I watched at home alone. Ferdinand was a magnificent and worthy winner. There was no place to bet in Georgia, and my solo Kentucky Derby was reflective of how much I disliked living in Atlanta.

In 1987, I was driving to my new job in Las Vegas. I listened to Alysheba win through poor reception on the radio in a U-Haul truck somewhere in Oklahoma. He clipped heels with Bet Twice and nearly went down. Hard to imagine I’d meet trainer Jack Van Berg, who died a few months ago, a few years later. There’s a painting by my late friend Ernie Mann (no relation) on the wall of my office. It’s Van Berg with me chatting at a racing convention. Ernie, a well-known fixture with his twin brother Evans at many Las Vegas betting shops, used a photo I had for inspiration. I still can’t figure out why Ernie added a horse, a woman with a scarf on her head and part of the Santa Anita grandstand in the background. Ernie was another complicated person.

The rest of my Kentucky Derby days were all spent in Las Vegas, except one at O’Hare Airport on the way to England. The Derby in Las Vegas means nice casino parties, wonderful friends and some winners and losers. Even though the memories tend to run together, I think back and smile.

Win or lose, the Kentucky Derby is very important to me and I hope it is to you, as well.