Twenty-five and counting

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Workers go through their paces at Churchill Downs in advance of Friday’s Kentucky Oaks and Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, Tom Law’s 25th on the scene and covering the events. Coady Media/Churchill Downs Photo.

Walking through the entrance gates at Churchill Downs Friday felt in stark contrast to what it was like back on May 2, 1998.

That day marked Kentucky Derby No. 1 and helped fulfill a personal goal to be on the scene of America’s greatest race. How it came about has been well told, especially so this week, between organized gatherings and impromptu gatherings with friends.

The Saratogian, my employer at the time, made the decision to send me to that year’s Kentucky Derby with a goal of boosting our racing coverage. After a flight from Albany to Cincinnati and a drive down to Louisville, I walked onto the Churchill grounds for the first time as a reporter two days before Real Quiet won his Kentucky Derby.

Walking into the press box, seeing the likes of Joe Hirsch and Ed Schuyler Jr., I felt like I’d made it. Or at least started to make it. Assigned a cubicle among so many of the country’s leading Turf and sports writers, I settled in for a day of writing after hitting the barn area that morning. After about a half-hour I felt a tap on my shoulder.

“I think you’re in my seat,” said the tapper.

“Oh, sorry. Wait, it says C-22 on my credential.”

“It says C-22 on mine, too. One of us must be wrong.”

“Let’s go ask, I’m sure it’s just a mistake and they’ll straighten it out.”

After a short walk to the communications office, we explained the situation, watched as Tony Terry looked through his paperwork before delivering the news.

“Well, that’s probably a mistake, but there aren’t any more spots. You’ll have to share.”

So, there we were, elbow the elbow in C-22 for the next couple days. No doubt my new cubicle mate, who I think worked for the Indianapolis Star, felt a bit of a slight sharing the space with a newbie on the scene from a small paper he’d probably didn’t know. Everything worked out well, Real Quiet won, Mike Pegram joked in the press box about the perks of “draft beer and a view of the roller coaster” and regaled of his younger days making the drive from his home near Ellis Park to Churchill. Someone asked how long the trip took, and Pegram didn’t flinch.

“About five beers.”

It feels like every Derby since, all 24, have left lasting imprints.

Prepping for a handicapping seminar at the Keeneland Library brought back a flood of those memories. Here are a few favorites, with apologies to those who came out to Keeneland for any repeats.

The first year I covered the Derby as the lead writer for Thoroughbred Times was 2002, when War Emblem won on the front end. I hoped for a Monarchos-like win, from connections I’d gotten to know over the years, but instead it was Bob Baffert’s third win for the late Prince Ahmed bin Salman. “Anyone but this horse,” might have come out of my mouth from high atop the finish, with no slight to the horse, just a writer looking for a fresh angle.

In 2003, after winning with New York-bred Funny Cide, Barclay Tagg and Robin Smullen sipped on a glass of red wine shortly after the Kentucky governor delivered his traditional toast in the Kentucky Derby Museum. Tagg had never run in the Derby. Looking for that fresh angle, I asked him if he’d ever come close, or been tempted to show up with a 3-year-old who might not win but could perform well on the big stage. Tagg, being in as good a mood as possible for Tagg, considered the question and also didn’t flinch. “I don’t chase empty wagons.”

Fast forward to 2019, the year Maximum Security was disqualified and I backed into the exacta to the tune of more than $1,500. I found myself next to Bill Mott on the walkway from the paddock to the racetrack as more than 20 minutes transpired for the inquiry, leading Mott to quip, “Makes for an interesting day.”

There have been three misses since that first Derby in 1998. Orb, American Pharoah and Authentic. Orb’s win came about a month after I made the move back to Saratoga from Lexington. Not sure why I didn’t make the trip for American Pharoah. And of course Authentic’s win came in 2020, when the race was run the first Saturday in September and we were still running at Saratoga in front of no fans on Labor Day weekend.

I attended Derby parties for two of those three, each time thinking ahead how it won’t be so bad to be home to watch the Derby only to realize the existential dread of being at home to watch the Derby. I guess the younger generation calls that FOMO.

Saturday marks No. 25 and there won’t be any fear of missing out. The race will be run in front of a record crowd, full-throated from the time they sing My Old Kentucky Home until the field tears down the stretch.

And when it’s all over there will be new memories made, more tales from Churchill Downs to share down the road.

Enjoy the day.