Fondly Recalled: Kentucky Derby Memories
Horse racing is built on good stories, so we asked 10 people deeply immersed in the game to tell us a personal tale about the Kentucky Derby.
“Chris Antley goes through rehab in 1999. He starts riding, and I think it was mid-January. He said he was coming back. His weight was good, he had a twinkle in his eye, and he looked like a million bucks. He said to me, ‘I was such a mess the last couple times I won the Derby, I just want to go back and experience it. I just want to be there.’ I said, ‘If there’s a chance I can get you a horse, I’ll get you there.’
“I don’t have a mount, or a call. This horse Charismatic wins the Lexington with Jerry Bailey, and then, here comes Wayne Lukas on Monday morning at Santa Anita. I had Gary Stevens at the time, too. Lukas said, ‘What’s Gary doing for the Derby?’ and I said, ‘He’s riding for Baffert.’ I said, ‘What about Antley?’ He said, ‘That should work.’
“Jerry Bailey had Charismatic hung up until Wednesday morning, and he wanted to check up on his main horse. The thing resonating in my mind is if Jerry Bailey is holding him up for four days between Saturday and Wednesday, he must think he has some sort of a chance and wants to make sure his horse (Worldly Manner, who finished seventh) is running. I came home, and I said, ‘Chris, guess what? You’re going to ride the Derby.’ He said, ‘No way.’ I said, ‘I don’t know if he has a chance, but Jerry held him up until Wednesday.’ And Chris said, ‘That’s great.’ And he won.”
“As a degenerate gambler, I tend to remember certain bets more vividly than classic moments of racing drama — which was the case in the 1989.
“Las Vegas then took bets on the last-place finisher, and Western Playboy, the well-regarded winner of the Blue Grass, was 20 to 1 to trail the field. He looked good on paper, but he was training dully at Churchill Downs — five furlongs in 1:03 — and his trainer, Harvey Vanier, seemed to be exuding pessimism. So I bet him to trail the field.
As 122,653 people roared for the first of the epic duels between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, my binoculars were trained on the rear of the pack for the head-and-head duel between Faultless Ensign and Western Playboy. Chris DeCarlo, in his first Derby, was driving Faultless Ensign as if he thought he could win the blanket of roses. Veteran Randy Romero, on Western Playboy, just wanted this fiasco to end. Faultless Ensign prevailed by a neck and Western Playboy finished 15th and last.”
“What came to me immediately when asked to relate a memory or reflection on the Derby was the indelible experience of attending the race for the first time. Though I had been to the Downs in 1999 for a fall meet afternoon and in 2000 for Breeders Cup, it was the 2001 Derby that would be my initial visit.
“While I had been a serious horseplayer and fan of the game for nearly 15 years at that point, the buildup to and impact of Derby Day was oddly overwhelming. Fueled by gleeful anticipation for an expected Triple Crown assault by Point Given, I soaked in as much of the atmosphere as possible. As a native New Yorker, I didn’t expect to hold back tears when I heard ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ live, but there I was as misty as any native of the commonwealth. Much of what transpired over the next few minutes was a blur, but the overall experience galvanized my interest and passion for the game and facilitated my founding of DerbyTrail.com and ultimately landing into the role I enjoy now as host of “At the Races” on SiriusXM. In other words, the Derby changed my life … and I’m forever in its debt.”
Barry Irwin at the 2012 Derby. (Eclipse Sportswire)
“When I was 12 years old, while living in Los Angeles, I remember what a big deal it was for California-bred Swaps to beat Kentucky-bred Nashua in the Kentucky Derby.
“The race itself was fairly uneventful, but it was loaded with tension, because Swaps was in front down the lane and Nashua had built up a full head of steam.
“Most of the members of the media were in total awe of Nashua, and they kept waiting for him to assert his authority in the run to the wire, but Swaps kept him at bay.
“As a Californian, it meant a lot to me to see Swaps turns back Nashua. It is a Derby memory I cherish.”
“What should a Kentucky Derby do? Maybe, at some moment, help a person fill in the blanks. That was how it felt during the winter and spring of 1972, when I became aware of a string of races pointing the way to Derby day. They appeared in Dad’s Sports Illustrated with names like Hibiscus and Everglades, names quite foreign to our Henrico County, Va., neighborhood. And there was a Virginia horse shaping up as the Derby favorite, even though he lost one time in the mud to the aquatic-sounding Head of the River. The River horse also belonged to a Virginia barn, but away somewhere. Our favored Virginia horse came from nearby, so it said in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
“Derby week, Sports Illustrated ran a two-page spread scattered with cameos of contenders, anchored in the middle by a large line drawing of a triumphant jockey and floral blanketed horse. No markings. Empty silks. Who would fill in the blanks? Me, a few days later, with a ballpoint pen. The empty horse now sported specific blue and white blinkers and jockey togs. He was the one we had wanted, the one who had led all the way instead of tiring like some critics expected, the one who had us kids chanting in the street that evening, “The Virginia horse won! The Virginia horse won!” Riva Ridge would lose some other races but never my allegiance. His fulfilled outline lived on my bedroom wall, testifying that you could come from here and be good enough to go anywhere.”
“My first Derby, 1988, was two months after my wife Carol and I moved to Kentucky from Los Angeles. She was seven months pregnant with our first child, and we stood together on the third floor during the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” and we both cried. It was not an easy decision for us to move to a place so far away, but it felt like home.
“Louis Roussel co-owned and trained Risen Star, who ran third to Winning Colors, and he was so nice to us that day. Risen Star had a tough trip, may have been best, and showed how good he was winning the Preakness and Belmont. He could have been the 12th Triple Crown winner.
“But instead of complaining after the race, Louie kept telling us how blessed we were to have a child on the way. He put his hands on Carol’s belly and said, “It’s going to be a boy.”
“He was right on both counts. We were blessed, and our son Chris was born two months later.”
“My favorite derby memory was 2009 when in early April I was reviewing the graded stakes earnings list. No one had Mine That Bird on their radar screen, and I’ve always been a believer if you have a healthy horse and earnings that there’s always a good chance that horse will end up in the Kentucky Derby.
“I tracked down a number for who I believed was trainer Bennie Woolley and decided to give him a call.
“‘Is Bennie there?’
He said, ‘This is Chip.’
“I said, ‘I’d like to speak with Bennie,’ and he says, ‘I’m Bennie, but call me Chip.’
“I said, ‘OK, Chip. I’m calling from Churchill Downs publicity and I see you’re within the top 20 of the graded stakes earnings list and was curious to know what your plans are for Mine that Bird.’
“He told me in all likelihood they were running in the Lone Star Derby after the Kentucky Derby.
“I said, ‘You know you’ve got the earnings, right?’
“He said, ‘We do?’
“An hour or so later, he calls me back to let me know they’re coming for the Kentucky Derby, and the rest is history. Dr. Leonard Blauch, the co-owner, has often referred to receiving an invitation to compete in the Derby and I’m pretty sure he’s referring to that conversation.”
“Being a 19-year-old daughter of a Kentucky horse trainer means there have been 18 Kentucky Derbies I have attended and will be adding one more to the list on May 5.
“With so many early childhood experiences, it is hard to pick just one that has made an impact on my life. However, one that stands out the most was the Derby of 2003. I was in the fourth grade and planning on spending the Derby as I usually would on the backside at Barn 4 of Churchill Downs.
“I wore a white T-shirt and pink capris because I was going to be playing in the barn dirt and running around with friends all day. But was I wrong! Little did I know I would be making the long walk over the historic track to the front side to saddle a horse in the fifth race with my dad. Never had I been to the front side on Derby day. I thought that was only for the adults!
“My dad took me through the grandstand and up to Millionaires’ Row, me in my white T-shirt trying to fit in with celebrities wearing lavish dresses and even more lavish hats. I was beyond ready to go back to the barn, where I could be comfortable with my friends, until Joey Fatone from ‘N Sync stopped me and told me my necklace was cool. Think I have thrown away that yellow and green beaded necklace I made in art class? Definitely not!”
“The first Kentucky Derby I covered for The Washington Post was in 2001. From the start I loved shooting my mouth off about horses, and back then I though I knew a lot more than I did. I started hanging around the barn of Todd Pletcher, just getting his feet wet in the big-time himself at the time, and started falling in love with John Fort’s horse, Invisible Ink. They tried to give me an Inky cap, but I wouldn’t take it because I didn’t want to compromise my sterling ethics. When they told me the story about how Invisible Ink nearly died as a young horse only to be saved by the bacteria in a bowl of spoiled buttermilk, I really was in deep and started touting him to everyone and made him my public selection.
When the race went off, he was 55-1, and the winner, Monarchos, was 10-1. The exacta paid $1,229 and I had it a few times along with Invisible Ink across the board. However, John Velazquez, who rode Invisible Ink claimed foul and the “Objection” sign went up. If the stewards changed the order of finish, I have the triple with a 55-1 shot on top. I could have been looking at $50,000. I looked down press row at Bill Christine of the Los Angeles Times and said, “Bill, I know you don’t know me very well, but if they take this horse down I’ll pay you 500 bucks to write my story because I’m going to be in no condition to do it.”
“The first race that I have a clear memory of watching on television was the 1991 Kentucky Derby. I was 11 years old and didn’t really have a conception of the way a race was run. I probably assumed that the horses that ran close to the front of the race usually won. So when Strike the Gold launched a six-wide rally from the back of the pack and catapulted past the leaders in the stretch, imagine my wonderment.
“I distinctly remember rewinding and watching the latter half of the race many, many times — my incredulity and excitement increasing exponentially with each additional viewing. It was the start of what has been a lifelong love for thoroughbred racing.”