Turning 18

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Standing on the hill at Keeneland, outside Doug O’Neill’s barn and waiting for Blue Grass winner Irap to go to the track for his final workout before last weekend’s Kentucky Derby, a colleague pitched a question that got me thinking.

“Tom, what’s your favorite part of the Derby?” Nicole Russo, who writes for Daily Racing Form and a talented young woman I plucked from Saratoga to join the team at Thoroughbred Times in 2012. “And if you say when it’s over I’ll kill you.”

Not a chance would my response be when it’s over. If you can’t get into the Derby, every moment, you’re in the wrong game and should just stay home and watch mindless sports talk on television.

It didn’t take long to fashion a response.

“Easy,” I said. “A lot of people say the walkover, which is great, but my favorite time is right before the walkover. When the horses all come from the barns to the track and walk in the chute, that’s the first time all year they’re all together. That’s the best part about the Derby to me.”

The first time I made the trip from the frontside to the backside to see that little snippet of Derby Week was 2002, the first time I’d write the lead story for my former employer. That question and answer got me thinking about other moments at the Derby that stand out, from the funny to the mundane, exciting to disappointing.

Sure this post is about a week overdue; I mean, who writes a Derby memories column after the Derby? Anyway, since I turned 18 this year – covering my 18th Derby, every one but two since 1998 – it seemed like a good time to go year by year for some personal highlights.

1998: Real Quiet. You always remember your first. A couple things stand out. One, I almost certainly was easily the youngest writer in the press box. Two, I was assigned a space in the press box and then had to share it with a writer from Indiana. Yes, share. Three, Real Quiet won for Bob Baffert, Kent Desormeaux and Mike Pegram and it was the latter who stole the show after the race. Asked how long it took him to drive from his hometown in Fort Knox, Kentucky, to Churchill Downs to go the races, Pegram didn’t flinch. “About six beers,” and the room erupted.

1999: Charismatic. Another first, this time for Thoroughbred Times. Covered the undercard stakes and spent the whole day in the paddock and winner’s circle. After wrapping up the Woodford Reserve I hit the stairs for the trek to the press box to watch the walkover, post parade and Derby. Greeted at the top of the stairs by a security guard, I was informed I needed a hand stamp and some other information on my credential and that all that could be done on the ground level near the elevator. Hot, sunburned and probably dehydrated, I lost it on the guard. Not my finest moment. A half hour later, cooled off I found the man, just doing his job. We chatted, probably even hugged it out. I still see him to this day, we always talk and this year he helped brush some rain from my sport coat after the Oaks.

2000: Fusaichi Pegasus, the first superstar I’d see at the Derby. The moment to remember came in the post-race press conference, which used to be held in the upstairs press box. Flanked by winning owner Fusao Sekiguchi, trainer Neil Drysdale answered all the requisite questions, fairly dryly before someone tried to get some personal reflection from the Englishman. “I don’t do touchy-feely questions.”

2001: Monarchos. One of my favorites. A few months before the Derby and down in South Florida on assignment I watched a gray colt win an allowance race and thought, there’s the Derby winner. Came back to Lexington, placed a future bet on Monarchos and watched the spring unfold. He won the Florida Derby, finished second in the Wood Memorial and came to the Derby as the underdog to Point Given. Colleagues told me he didn’t look good training – I’m still not sure how people can make such judgements when they don’t see horses train for weeks at a time – but I didn’t waver. After a lightning fast pace Monarchos and “Chop Chop” Jorge Chavez mowed them down in the lane and won easy. I couldn’t resist, getting in my two co-workers’ faces and telling them, “I told you!” Again, not the proudest moment but I couldn’t resist. He paid $23 and by the way, I also had the exacta for $1,229.

2002: War Emblem. Watching through my binoculars from the balcony alongside Jeff Lowe, I’ll never forget saying, “Somebody run this horse down.” I didn’t have a real beef with the horse, who got a masterful ride from a young Victor Espinoza, I just didn’t feel like writing a Baffert wins Derby story.

2003: Funny Cide. The center of attention all week – all spring really – was Empire Maker and rightfully so. The New York-bred stole the show and the little guys got it done, yellow school bus and all. Went to the post-race party inside the Derby Museum for the first time, hoping to track down trainer Barclay Tagg. He was sipping on a glass of red wine when I finally caught up with him and we talked about the Derby, how this was his first trip to the big race and why it took so long. “I don’t chase empty wagons,” he said, a lesson that could still apply to many trainers and owners with unrealistic expectations.

2004: Smarty Jones. What a performance by the pride of Philadelphia Park. The thing that stands out the most was the monster storm that rolled through about an hour before the race. It rained so hard part of the track washed away where the straight becomes a bend on the first turn and there was so much water people in the first row of box seats were calf deep in the water.

2005: Giacomo. Watched the race from the outside rail on the ground level – not a great spot to watch by the way. Settling into a spot to get a good view, I sensed someone standing close to the my right. I turned slightly to see John Shirreffs, wearing his trademark Mill Ridge baseball cap. I’d met him for the first time that week, liked him and said, “Good luck John.” He said thanks. A few minutes later Giacomo rolled past on the outside, Shirreffs and members of his team jumped up and down, embraced like crazy, smiles as big as the grandstand. One of those moments you’ll never forget. Pure joy, no filter.

2006: Barbaro. He was the star all week and that star that day, without a doubt. Before the race I turned to Jeff Lowe again and said, “Let’s hurry up and get down to the rail, we’re about to see something awesome.” We sure did.

2007: Street Sense. Who’s better than Calvin Borel? Or Carl Nafzger, one of my heroes. The moment I remember most came a week before, running the Derby Festival Mini Marathon (there’s nothing mini by the way about 13.1 miles) with friends Charlie O’Connell and Rick Jordan. We clicked off 8-minute miles almost the whole way and Charlie sensed I was ready to let it rip at any time – I was 35 at the time! – so as we approached mile 12 he said, “Tall Tom, let’s see how fast you can run that last mile, when we get to 12 just go.” Full disclosure it was 1.1 miles and I did it in less than 7 minutes, finishing the race in 1:44.08.

2008: Big Brown. Poetry in motion from post No. 20. Still the only horse to ever win from that spot. Never seen a horse win the Derby with such ease.

2009: Mine That Bird. My late friend and former colleague John Harrell schooled me on the best way to cover the Derby way back in 2002, telling me, “go see every horse, talk to every trainer and try to go back in the afternoon during feed time or when they’re grazing, you’ll get the best stuff.” Spending the week in Louisville allowed one to do just that, catch a few guys per day and be ready no matter who wins. Truth be told if I was writing the lead – Jeff took the helm in 2007 – I don’t know if I would have gone to see Chip Woolley.

2010: Super Saver. Borel again, what a master. Todd Pletcher’s first.

2011: Animal Kingdom. John Velazquez was left without a mount when Uncle Mo scratched. The connections of Animal Kingdom replaced Robby Albarado with Velazquez and I’ll always remember thinking, “man, that’s an impossibly bad break.” No offense to Albarado, but when you can get Johnny, you get Johnny.

2012: I’ll Have Another: Back on the beat and writing the lead. The last one for my former employer, bankrupt by September.

2013: Orb. First miss, watched the race from the sun porch in temporary rental house in Saratoga. I screamed so loud rooting for Orb that even the Navy guys renting a house next door were freaked out. If you know anything about those guys, that’s saying something.

2014: California Chrome. Back on the beat, my first for ST Publishing and This Is Horse Racing. First horse I saw the first morning on the scene at Churchill Downs – California Chrome, galloping around in the mud.

2015: American Pharoah. Another miss, what an edition to miss. Tried to console myself, thinking it will be great to have a Derby party. The party was fun, but it’s nothing compared to being there and seeing it unfold.

2016: Nyquist. Came in town a bit early, catching a lot of the Keeneland meet and lucking into access to the champion and eventual winner while he stayed in Lexington.

2017: Always Dreaming. Expected would be the weather, the worst for any major race weekend since the 2007 Breeders’ Cup at Monmoth Park. But this year’s Derby will always be about the year I lucked into the sweetest of hookups thanks to Mark Grier, great friend of The Saratoga Special. Stayed at the Galt House downtown, spent two days in the Twin Spires Elite Gold Room and watched the races from a box on the front row of section 316. It will be hard to top. Thanks again, Mark, and great to meet your family and friends. My door is always open in Saratoga.