For someone who has been to 52 of the last 54 Kentucky Derbies, Billy Reed’s best story might be about one he missed.
It was 1973 and Derby Day coincided with the presentation of the Sigma Delta Chi journalism awards in Omaha. Sports writers Reed and Jim Bolus were being honored for their investigative reporting on races that had been fixed on the Derby undercard the preceding year. They were receiving the top overall award, and if you want to get an idea of the significance, two guys named Woodward and Bernstein finished second for exposing shenanigans in a different race.
They flipped a coin to see who would travel to accept the award. Bolus won the flip, so Reed packed his bags. For true Kentuckians and diehard Derby devotees, being at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May takes precedence over almost everything, even winning a photo with Woodward and Bernstein.
“So, the morning of the Secretariat Derby,” Reed recalled this week, “I was flying over Churchill Downs on the way to Omaha.”
Reed met Bernstein when he got there – not sure if he won or lost the flip with Woodward – and the two struck up a conversation. As the day went on, each was preoccupied with something of significant consequence at home.
“We both kept running to the phone,” Reed said. “He was calling Woodward to see what was going on with Nixon and I was calling Bolus to ask about Secretariat.”
Maybe you have to be a racing fan to perfectly understand that nothing trumps the Derby – even a once-in-a-generation political scandal.
That’s the effect the Derby has on people, especially those for whom it is not so much a major sporting event as a way of life.
“I always know where I will be the first Saturday in May. Now, I’m here, but the Derby won’t be,” Reed said of the postponement to Sept. 5 due to the ongoing global health crisis.
Reed was a senior at Transylvania University and assistant sports editor of the Lexington Herald when he went to his first Derby in 1966, won by Kauai King. He has chronicled it ever since in a career that has seen him win multiple Eclipse Awards and write a dozen Sports Illustrated cover stories.
“You can always find an angle at the Derby,” said Reed, who missed the 1994 Derby for his daughter’s graduation from Duke. “For me, unlike the Super Bowl or World Series or bowl games, I’ve never been disappointed in the Derby.”
For Dr. J. David Richardson, the Derby is more a holiday – or holy day, for that matter – than simply an event. He and more than 150 family members typically gather for brunch at his home and then head to Churchill.
“It’s a special time for the whole family,” he said.
Richardson was in junior high in 1958 when he went to his first Derby and saw Tim Tam wear the roses. He’s been to 43 straight and said the most memorable experience involved a family member, Woodford Cefis Stephens – you know him as “Woody” – who was Richardson’s father’s first cousin.
Stephens, who had won his first Derby in 1974 with Cannonade, brought Swale into the 1984 Derby off an upset loss in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. The Lexington was run on a cold, rainy day and Stephens came down with pneumonia.
Richardson, currently chief of surgery at University of Louisville Hospital, learned the day after the Lexington that Stephens, 70 at the time, was very sick. He and his brother, Dr. Ron Richardson, drove to Lexington to pick up Stephens. They brought him back to Louisville and admitted him to Norton Hospital.
Stephens, who also had a Kentucky Oaks contender in Miss Oceana, was discharged Thursday, May 3. Friday, Miss Oceana lost the Oaks by a head to D. Wayne Lukas’ Lucky Lucky Lucky, but Swale’s Derby victory – the first for Claiborne Farm – was just what the doctor ordered, even if you couldn’t tell by looking at him.
“Woody was still gray as ghost,” said Richardson. “My brother and I literally carried him to the winner’s circle in the infield.”
The $3,000 bet Stephens had on Swale must have made him feel at least a little better.
A Different ‘Angle’
All eyes were on Secretariat as the chestnut colt roared down the Churchill stretch on the way to a record-breaking performance (1:59 2/5) in the 1973 Derby.
Well, not all eyes.
Dr. Robert Copelan was in the stands that day and his binoculars were indeed trained on a horse trained by Lucien Laurin – just not the one you would expect.
Even though he had treated Secretariat, who was bothered by an abscess in his mouth in the two weeks prior to the Derby, Copelan was focused on his stablemate, Angle Light, because of something that happened the day before the race.
Laurin had asked the veterinarian to give both horses a final once-over. When Copelan arrived at the barn, he met a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter, who asked him, “What’s that coming out of that horse’s nose?”
The horse was Angle Light, who had upset Secretariat in the Wood Memorial, and he was bleeding from both nostrils. Copelan called Claiborne Farm, where Laurin had gone to check on some yearlings, and told him he should scratch Angle Light.
Laurin asked Copelan to break the news to the owner, Edwin Whittaker, a Toronto-based electronics executive. “His face turned white,” Copelan recalled.
Whittaker asked the vet if anything could be done. Copelan told him running a horse the day after he bled – let alone in the Kentucky Derby – was highly inadvisable, but Whittaker pleaded and Angle Light ran. He finished 10th of 13, beaten 20 lengths by his stablemate the legend, and came out of the race healthy.
“I never saw Secretariat,” said Copelan, a marvel who practiced veterinary medicine for exactly 65 years – June 12, 1953 to June 12, 2018, retiring at age 91. “My glasses were on Angle Light; I was hoping he didn’t bleed.”
Trainer and lifelong Kentuckian Buff Bradley has missed only two Derbies in the last 43 years – to run in a high school track meet in 1981 and when he was working as an assistant to Clarence Picou in Louisiana in 1990.
“It’s the biggest day of the year for me,” said Bradley. “I remember watching Secretariat and I learned quickly what the Derby and the Triple Crown were all about.”
Bradley has been training since 1993, but he is still waiting for his Derby horse. That doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm for the spectacle that is the Derby. “I think it might be more meaningful for somebody growing up in the horse capital of the world,” he said.
Bradley inherited his love of horses from his late father, Fred, a consummate horseman and gentleman, and he has passed it on to his children, especially daughter, Kory, who is 25 years old and has been to 25 Derbies, though she thought her streak might end last year.
“I had moved to Alaska and I was nervous that I was going to miss the Derby for the first time ever,” she said. “But my boyfriend, now fiancé, bought me a plane ticket to come back for it.”
Kory, back working on the family farm, had a temporary panic attack when she learned of this year’s postponement to September. “I’m getting married in September,” she said, “but my wedding is the last weekend and the Derby is the first weekend.”
There’s even time for a honeymoon.
You always remember your first
Ercel Ellis Jr. – owner, breeder, trainer, writer, broadcaster – went to his first Derby in 1947 with his parents. His father managed Dixiana Farm, which had Star Reward in the race. He ran a respectable sixth to Jet Pilot, who may have been destined to win.
Jet Pilot, bred by Arthur B. Hancock and trained by Tom Smith of Seabiscuit fame, was sent to Kentucky from his Chicago base as a 2-year-old. While he was gone, there was a fire that killed 22 of his barnmates. In the 1947 Derby, he drew outside, was taken to the lead by Eric Guerin and held on to defeat Phalanx by a head.
These days Ellis, 88, is content to watch the Derby on TV from his Bourbon County farm where, he said, “I’m looking out at four horses that I used to train and I’m trying to outlive them.”
Bill Landes, general manager of Hermitage Farm, went to his first Derby in 1975 as a guest of Warner L. Jones Jr., who was running Hermitage at the time. Landes was catching the racing bug, and the Derby helped turn it into a high-grade fever.
“What a thrill for a 25-year-old that was,” he said of watching Foolish Pleasure give trainer LeRoy Jolley his first Derby win. “I was horse crazy. It consumed me.”
In 1977, Landes, who had come to Louisville to attend University of Louisville Law School, took a year off from practicing law to learn more about the horse business. Forty-three years later, the barrister is still in the barn.