It’s Kentucky Derby week and everybody’s got the fever. At least it seems like they do.
Reading the buildup gives the impression that members of the media are busy, what with the frequent updates, tweets, texts, pictures, and quips coming in fast and furious.
You hope for something different from the professional photographers, who always seem to cluster together and get the same shots.
You hope for something a little different from the professional writers, who tell the same old stories about so and so going to the track, doing this and that, and then hearing what’s his name go on and on about how much he handled the surface.
I always wonder how every horse seems to be handle the surface, then 48 hours later their connections say they didn’t handle it all week. I always wonder how people who don’t see horses train on a regular basis, or haven’t seen this particular group of horses train at any point, talk and write about how this horse looked good and this horse looked bad.
Two guys I respect immensely couldn’t wait to tell me on the morning of the 2001 Derby about how my pick, Monarchos, “didn’t look good all week.” I’m pretty sure I violated most unwritten rules about rooting in the press box and proper decorum when I got in their faces afterwards, incessantly blurting out, “I told you, I told you, I told you!
But back to the present.
The 2013 edition of the Derby is the 139th and will be the first I’ve missed since 1997. Silver Charm fought off the determined Captain Bodgit and Free House that year, giving Bob Baffert and owners Robert and Beverly Lewis their first win in America’s great race. Baffert won it again the next year, with Mike Pegram’s Real Quiet.
The 1998 edition was my first and I remember it well.
Remember getting the call from the then publisher of my hometown paper saying he bought a plane ticket and booked a hotel. Remember flying from Albany to Cincinnati the Thursday before the race. Remember picking up the rental car, hitting the exit at the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport, and asking the gate guard, “which way is Louisville?”
“You here for the Derby?”
“Follow the signs for 71. About 100 miles. Have fun.”
Don’t remember much about the drive, but remember pulling off Central Avenue into a parking lot behind Churchill Downs. Racing just wrapped up and so had some rain. The pavement of the parking lot and the bricks on the ground inside the entrance gates smelled wet. The kind of wicked storm that hits in the middle of the day, moves through, and leaves behind the last few hours of bright, late afternoon sunshine.
It wasn’t my first trip to Churchill Downs-I’d been there for the Breeders’ Cup-but this was different. This was the Derby. Getting the chance to cover it, especially as a 26-year-old reporter for a paper with a circulation of 12,000 if we were lucky, was big time.
Don’t remember much about the rest of the day, other than making another drive to my hotel somewhere in Indiana.
The next 36 hours are kind of a blur, too, with the next morning spent on the backside at Churchill gathering quotes and stories for my Derby day advance. Remember talking to Bill Mott about Favorite Trick, Baffert about Indian Charlie and Real Quiet, D. Wayne Lukas about Cape Town, Nick Zito about Halory Hunter. Big time.
Racing that day was good, Keeper Hill wore down Banshee Breeze to win the Oaks. Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel and soon-to-be Hall of Famer Carl Nafzger in the exacta. Big time.
Derby day was even better. The first race went off at 11:30 a.m. back then-still too early in this writer’s opinion-and the late Jeff Jacobs trained the winner, a good colt named Cinnamon Creek. Calvin Borel rode. Yes It’s True beat stablemate Tactical Cat a nose in the WHAS for 2-year-olds (remember that race?). Big time.
Walked around and wrote a story about the infield. Every rookie does that, right?
Watched Distorted Humor, who later sired 2003 Derby winner Funny Cide as part of a stud career still going strong, win the Churchill Downs Handicap. Witchful Thinking, Colonial Minstrel, and Joyeux Danseur also won stakes leading up to the Derby.
The Derby, run then at the ideal post of about half past 5, was certainly a good one. Maybe not a great one, but a memorable one.
Fast pace early, thanks to Old Trieste and Rock and Roll. Baffert one-two when they turned for home, Real Quiet leading Indian Charlie. Real Quiet opens up inside the eighth pole. Victory Gallop gets rolling. Real Quiet holds him off by a half.
About an hour later up in the press box, where they used to do the post-race interviews, owner Mike Pegram was in perfect form. He was Mike Pegram. Funny, personable, real, entertaining, multiplied ten times.
In the middle of someone asking about the race, Pegram spotted the top of the roller coaster at nearby Six Flags.
“No wonder you guys like it up here. Free beer and a view of the roller coaster.”
A little while later someone asked him how far of a trip was it from the area he grew up near Ellis Park to Churchill Downs.
“About six beers.”
Pegram cracked up. Everyone else did, too.
The next morning at the barn Pegram talked about how he and several friends stayed up all night-of course-to get a copy of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
To see his horse on the cover.
To see that it happened.
To see that it wasn’t a dream.
To see that it was real-Real Quiet if you will.
Check out Real Quiet’s Derby win here.