Derby Firsts

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Life is all about firsts, for better or worse. First day of school, first dates, first beer when you’re legal, first beer when you’re not, first child, first marathon, first car accident, first day of work, first day of retirement, first Kentucky Derby, first kiss.

Saturday marks a first in my life when Elizabeth and I host a Kentucky Derby party. She’s done it many times before, while running a hunter/jumper farm in Lexington a few years back it was an annual tradition. From 1998 to 2012, the first Saturday in May for me represented an annual pilgrimage to Louisville and Churchill Downs.

That first one in 1998 was as a member of the sports staff at the local paper here in Saratoga Springs. Thoroughbred Times came calling a few weeks after that adventure and a few weeks after that I was off to the Bluegrass of Kentucky. My first Derby for the Times was 1999, Charismatic and Chris Antley. I watched from the balcony of the old press box at Churchill, alongside my late friend and colleague John Harrell. He was our lead Derby writer, a fitting position for a guy who thoroughly loved everything about the race.

When he left the Times a few years later for a job closer to home and his new family, the assignment fell in my lap. I’ll never forget going to John’s house in the Highlands neighborhood, downing some Wick’s pizza and getting some advice from him on how to best cover the race.

John suggested – probably ordered – that afternoons during the week be spent in the stable area. Get some alone time with the trainers and the horses, it’ll make better stories. Much better than what comes out of a reporter with a nose in the past performances and a ladle in the buffet chow line.

The first Derby I covered as the lead writer was 2002 – War Emblem, Bob Baffert, 11th-hour private purchase for Prince Ahmed’s The Thoroughbred Corp., gate-to-wire with a young Victor Espinoza.

At the top of the stretch I remember calling out, “anybody but him,” as I looked through my binoculars, wanting a better story and not another Baffert victory. He’d won in 1998 with Real Quiet and I covered Silverbulletday’s victory in the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.

The next year provided a better story to cover. Funny Cide. First New York-bred. First win for Jose Santos, Barclay Tagg, Sackatoga Stable. My first – and only – Red Smith Kentucky Derby Writing Award followed. I told you life was all about firsts.

So Saturday we’ll host about a dozen or so friends for a very low-key Derby party, complete with Mint Juleps served in Derby glasses that I’ll probably try to give away as souvenirs, plenty of food and other drinks and maybe even a little cornhole. I’ll rig up a TV so we can watch the live stream of the undercard stakes. We’ll probably go inside to watch the Derby. I’m doubtful there will be any singing, but you never know, somebody else might be nostalgic.

I’m sure more than a few people will yell the television set, something I did two years ago as my wife and I watched the race in the sunroom of our temporary rental, a month removed from relocating from Kentucky to upstate New York.

We went back for the Derby last year, took Elizabeth’s parents to their first Derby. They got to see the first California-bred win it in more than 50 years when California Chrome won with Espinoza in the saddle.

I remember saying I’d never miss it again. Well, that didn’t last long and we’ll watch from home again, the second time in three years. I know we’ll be back again, maybe even next year if we’re lucky enough, but for now I’ll cherish another new memory. Another first, if you will.