I don’t have a clue how to pick a winning thoroughbred. But I do love a great story. And is there a better sport for great stories than horse racing? Today is Kentucky Derby Day in Louisville, the culmination of a three-week celebration of all thing equine and Kentucky (and then some). It’s said the two minutes of actual racing is an anticlimax – as if hearing the roar of 150,000 spectators as horses approach the starting gate could be anything but awe-inspiring.
This year’s favorite is California Chrome, rising to the fore off four straight dominant victories but a product of a wildly unlikely story – two friends join a syndicate backing a too-small, too-slow filly that loses three races by a total of 72 lengths. The syndicate decides to dump the horse, but the friends insist they see something special and buy her for $8,000 – and breed her to a young stallion recently retired from racing because of injury for another $2,000. From this comes a colt with four white feet and a blaze on his chestnut face. They need a trainer, so they pick a grizzled old 70-something mainstay who’s good with young stock but never had a big winner. After a so-so start – two wins in six races – they switch jockeys and the horse rips off four straight dominant victories and qualifies for a trip to Louisville. How’s this turn out? We’ll know today.
But all of the 19 runners today have a story – Harry’s Holiday is partly owned by the folks who run the horsemen’s longtime coffee shop/breakfast hangout/watering hole down the street from Churchill Downs; Danza was named for actor Tony Danza – his sire is Street Boss – and Uncle Sigh was named for Uncle Si Robertson on “Duck Dynasty.” But General a Rod was not named for disgraced baseball slugger Alex Rodriguez but for his former owner, Armando Rodriguez.
Last year’s winner, Orb, was owned and bred by American racing bluebloods – Ogden Phipps and Stuart Janney – who had won everything in sight except a Derby. And so, too, his trainer, Shug McGaughey, from nearby Lexington. His biggest previous Derby favorite, Easy Goer, had come to Louisville in 1989 but was upset in a stirring stretch drive by Sunday Silence. It took 24 years for his next best chance. But all he ever wanted all those years was to win a Derby.
I’m sure it’s like that for the Melbourne Cup. Never been – though I’ve watched on TV and spent a glorious day at Flemington a year ago February watching one of the last of Black Caviar’s victories. Funny that I help direct Derby coverage and produce our newspaper’s two big Derby sections – a 28-page preview today and a 24-page postrace edition tomorrow – and have access to all kinds of racing “experts” but have picked a winner just twice since we moved here the year after Easy Goer. I got Street Sense in 2007 and Grindstone in 1996, though the latter was an accident as he was coupled with Editor’s Note (who could resist?) in the betting. As an inside joke, our paper called an editor’s note a “grindstone” for years after.
Of course, most of our experts (six analysts, the nine who form our weekly poll for three months before the race, 20 media members) this year are trying to beat the favorite. And there is some logic as California Chrome hasn’t had the best week of training on the Churchill dirt. And Churchill has the longest stretch of any mile track in America, meaning the Derby often sets up perfectly for a stalker or a late runner. This year the best of that group may be Intense Holiday, Danza, Medal Count and possibly Candy Boy. And that’s the consensus. So I’m taking California Chrome.
Today we’ll dispatch a dozen writers to the track for the race (and accompanying stakes) and another dozen to cover all the other aspects – the celebrities, the fashion, the crowds, the security. Unlike some cities, where a major event can be taking place and one can be insulated from it, in Louisville, the Derby and the anticipation take over for some time. It colors everything that happens in town, from the air show-fireworks show Thunder Over Louisville two weeks before and then through the marathon, art fair, steamboat race, high school all-star basketball game, bed races, sand volleyball tournament, hole-in-one contest, celebrity appearances, charity events, downtown parade (we have a ringside seat at the paper as it passes below us) and nightly outdoor concerts. We had 30,000 at the track on Thursday and 100,000 Friday for a program of stakes topped with the Kentucky Oaks for 3-year-old fillies. Today, with perfect weather (75 and sunny) after seven years of rainy days, they’re expecting 150-160,000.
The race will go off at about 6:30, and we’ll have 3½ hours to generate 12-14 stories and produce our 24-page section for the Derby night pressrun, roughly double our usual. What a rush. And on a day of great stories, I have my own tale, as I met my wife, Debbie, on a Derby Day double blind date back in 1975. There were six of us – one established couple, two guys, two girls – waiting for a bus to take us to the party. The couple got on first and then one of the guys – who my future wife had met the week before and decided she wanted no part of. The other girl, AnnMarie, was my future wife’s best friend, from age 4. So Debbie sized up the situation and said, “AnnMarie, you go ahead,” effectively throwing her best friend on the bus and under the bus at the same time. That pairing lasted a couple hours. The established couple lasted another year. And next month is our 35th wedding anniversary. Oh, and the Derby winner that year was Foolish Pleasure. I didn’t get that one right, either. But I always count that Derby Day as my best win.