Derby Time

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The best week of the year – not counting every week at Saratoga – has finally arrived.

I’m ready for the 80-mile trek from Lexington to Louisville for the 148th Kentucky Derby. The first came by way of Albany to Cincinnati and down to Louisville, way back in 1998, as a sportswriter for the hometown paper.

“We’re going to send you to the Derby this year,” the managing editor told me.

What an experience. First official work trip on a plane. Rental car, hotel somewhere north in Indiana, expense account (“don’t go nuts.”) and a check on the bucket list. Not that there was a bucket list at 26 back then.

Two weeks after the trip I got a call from an editor at a trade publication in Lexington. We’d talked at the Derby, a spot for a writer just opened up and fate took over. Two months later that Derby trip turned into a life change.

A couple things stand out from that Derby trip, and some have appeared in this space in the past. Apologies for any redundancies.

• Didn’t stay for the entire Oaks Day card. Keeper Hill and David Flores won by a neck over Banshee Breeze and Jerry Bailey. Watched it from the Days Inn, no doubt furiously working on race previews and picks for the Derby Day Pink Sheet. It still feels like a blunder.

• Not long after settling into my workspace on Derby Day in the now old, old, old press box (the one above the finish line with indoor work carrels and assigned outdoor spots for watching the race), another reporter about my age showed up. No doubt we were a couple of the youngest guys in the room.

“I think you’re in my spot.”

“Oh, this is the one they gave me.”

“We should check to see if it’s right.”

Five minutes later, after looking at a seating chart and scoping out the scene, Churchill Downs’ former publicity director Tony Terry said, “well, there aren’t any more spaces. You’ll have to share.”

• Ventured out to the infield for the first time on Derby Day. Wrote about it in a column that I need to dig up one day. Received more feedback about that piece than anything else all year. By a wide margin.

• Mike Pegram, after winning with Real Quiet, delivered one of my favorite quotes when asked how long it took him to get from Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky., to Churchill Downs.

“About six beers.”

We had a great laugh when I reminded him about it when he won the Black-Eyed Susan in 2013.

Who knows what kind of memories will be made this year. Let’s just hope it’s not a disqualification – on the track or in the courtroom – and be equally thankful we’re running on the first Saturday in May.

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