"TELL ME A STORY!" That’s what a caller said via telephone. He was specific: "Tell me a Kentucky Derby story!"
The request was given consideration. After all, the Run for the Roses is only a week away. So, why not a Churchill Downs story?
Across the years and across the board I seldom missed many trips to Louisville for the First Saturday of May. To me, the Derby is better than the World Series, Super Bowl and a title fight all rolled into one. Each left a memory. If only there were time and space.
As I scanned upstairs, one memory stood out. It was in 1961, the first Kentucky Derby I ever attended. The winner that year was Carry Back. What I liked best about him was that he was somewhat of a social outcast in the world of thoroughbreds. He was often referred to as the "horse from the other side of the tracks," because his breeding lines made bluebloods shudder at the thought of him winning so prestigious a race.
I met up with Carry Back and his connections - owner Catherine Price and trainer Jack Price - in 1960 when they came to Garden State Park and won the rich Garden State Stakes. I was beating the drums at the time at Eugene Mori’s horse palace in Cherry Hill, N.J.
I caught up with Jack Price under the shed row. Not only did I like the humbly bred Carry Back, I took a fancy to Price. He was my kind of guy. It had nothing to do with the fact that he often referred to himself as a "layer and player." Although, he never tried to hide the fact that he was once a bookmaker. Price once told me that since he was a young man, he had owned at least a part of a racehorse. He said he had a perception of sniffing out winners.
It became obvious that Jack took his new career as a horseman seriously. Price sensed that Carry Back was something special. He started the horse 21 times as a juvenile. That may not be a record, but by today’s standards, it’s astounding.
Carry Back was a small horse. He loved to come from far behind, circling the field. That won him much attention from racing fans everywhere. By the time he arrived at Churchill for the First Saturday in May, Carry Back already had a reputation of a small social outcast to be contended with.
Jack was good copy. He loved to talk. His wife, a gracious lady, had little to say.
By the time I arrived for the 87th Derby I had already begged and borrowed all the money I could get my hands on. It all went on Carry Back to win.
Johnny Sellers rode Carry Back. All the pre-race publicity sent Carry Back off the 5-to-2 favorite. He started from post 14 in a 15-horse field, which included several heavyweights of the day - Globemaster and Crozier were among the serious threats.
With bated breath and through binoculars I watched Carry Back - 16 lengths behind the leaders - going into the final turn. My eyes were glued on Sellers. He knew Carry Back like the back of his hand. I waited for him to begin clucking to the horse. With a furlong to go, Sellers went to work; so did Carry Back. He was head-and-head with Crozier at the 40-yard pole before he went to the lead by 3/4 of a length.
I should be ashamed to remember this part of the story, but I won’t leave it out. Although the thrill of winning a nice piece of money was never far from the surface of my mind, the joy of seeing Carry Back cross the finish line meant more to me.
Carry Back went on to win the Preakness Stakes two weeks later. I wish I could say he also won the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown. I can’t. An outsider by the name of Sherlock stepped proudly on the Sidewalks of New York. Carry Back was up the track.
The Prices retired Carry Back at the close of the 1962 season. But, Jack Price’s sixth sense about horses surfaced and in August 1963, Carry Back returned to the races and went out a winner with the second victory of the Trenton Handicap at Garden State Park. I was there and bet with both fists. And the horse from the other side of the tracks made believers of all the swells.
NEXT WEEK: I’ll take another stab at picking a Derby winner. My record to date isn’t shabby!