Tony Reinstedler had a place for me to stay. That clinched it, I was going to the Derby. After homemade seafood jambalaya and a couple of Abitas Monday night, Reinstedler pointed to a tent in his backyard. I could still hear music from Baxter Avenue as I fell asleep. Mark Hennig smuggled a backstretch parking pass and held a spot for my Honda Civic. I finagled a press pass from John Asher, it had Steeplechase Times in block letters. Doc Richardson handed me two glossy box tickets as I wandered aimlessly before the first on Oaks Day. I wound up at the Lavins’ party along the river.
Welcome to Derby Week. It was the old Churchill Downs. Maybe not the oldest, but the oldest to me. When the Twin Spires were the Twin Spires, standing tall, like they were placed last, rather than erected first. The clubhouse was cramped, stifling, airless, nooks and crannies, tucked-away bars and betting windows, new friends and old friends strewn like scissors, batteries and pens in the kitchen junk drawer. Betting lines wound long and deep, bar lines, too. I tried to walk from the grandstand to the paddock, kicked more Budweiser bottles than Messi kicked balls, and gave up. The races started early, an hour between races, they ran late.
For the first time in my life, I didn’t have a job on the first Saturday in May. I wasn’t at the Virginia Gold Cup, cajoling hurdle horses and tempering timber horses to go 4 miles in the big one. Without a riding job, without a writing gig (sorry, John), long before a radio assignment, I was a fan, just a horse racing fan, with other horse racing fans. A spectator. It was strange. It was glorious.
Monarchos won the Derby. From what I could tell. Who could see anything? I bet him. Gas money. That’s about all.
My first Kentucky Derby. 2001. Where have you been all my life?
That was the first and, no, there will never be another first.
A year later, War Emblem won the Derby. I couldn’t relate to that one. It happened, we watched from the clubhouse stairs, we went home.
A year later, my friend Chris Young got me a gig for MSNBC’s documentary on the Triple Crown. I had my own room at the Executive West (Reinstedler put up the tent just in case), hung out with Gary Stevens and Jeff Mullins in the basement bar. The producers wanted me to track Bobby Frankel and Empire Maker, gave me a pair of glasses with a camera in the center. Long before GoPro, these looked like something out of Maxwell Smart. I never thought there was a bigger certainty than Empire Maker in the Derby. I stood dumbfounded next to Frankel, watching from the paddock, while Funny Cide upset the Derby. Frankel didn’t have much to say. Neither did I.
A year later, I spent the week at Churchill Downs and then went home to see Extra Check, a horse I owned, run at Pimlico Saturday. He finished fourth. I regret that. Smarty Jones won one for the ages. I made the Preakness and that oh so deflating Belmont.
I was there for Giacomo a year later. But not as there as I should have been a few days earlier when Mike Smith was telling me how good the 50-1 shot was training and how brilliant his trainer, a guy named John Shirreffs, was at delivering on the big day. I went home skint that year.
Then there was Barbaro. Writing a feature for Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred, I fell for the robust colt and his local connections early. I was as certain as I was with Empire Maker. By then, I had learned that you could actually make the walk with the horses and was heading back to the barn when I met Michael Matz walking the other way. He was flustered. Well, flustered for a guy who won an Olympic gold medal and rescued children from a burning plane. Here he was, swimming upstream as owners, trainers, writers and gawkers walked the other way.
“My son, Alex, wanted to walk over with me, and I told him no; I just thought there would be too much going on for him,” Matz said. “Then as I was walking, I got to thinking, ‘I might not ever get here again.’ My first Olympics, I didn’t even go to the opening ceremonies. I said, ‘Oh, I’ll be here every year.’ It took me 16 years to get back. After that, I was the first guy on the bus.”
Matz’s wife, D.D., delivered 9-year-old Alex. Father and son walked back to the barn, hand-inhand. I walked with them, taking notes, knowing it was big. Two weeks later, I learned how big.
Of all the Derby winners, of all the Derby memories, Barbaro’s singed my soul. I went to nine in a row after Barbaro. There was Street Sense on the rail, Big Brown from the parking lot, Mine That Bird in a shocker. There was Super Saver for Todd Pletcher’s first, Animal Kingdom for friends John Velazquez and Graham Motion and a powerful run from I’ll Have Another. There was Orb for the biggest ticket I ever cashed, California Chrome for the little guys and then American Pharoah. When he won the Triple Crown, it seemed like a good time to step off the ride. I haven’t been to the Derby since.
This year? I’m not sure I would have gone or not. But, like all of us, I sure would have liked to have the choice.
As Matz said, “I might not ever get here again.”