The finest two minutes of horse racing on the planet.
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Tomorrow is Derby Day, a favorite of mine since I was a pre-schooler in Wilmington, Delaware. Back then, all of the neighbors would congregate at somebody’s house to imbibe on Mint Juleps and watch the race on a black and white television set. Since then, which was back in the late 1950’s, I have seen over 50 Derby races, including attending the race twice in Louisville.
What impresses me about the Derby is not really the pomp and pageantry, but the race itself. Even as a youngster, while other kids were still playing in the sandbox, I found the spectacle of the race fascinating. To watch these magnificent creatures exerting every sinew of muscle around the track, expertly commanded by small men with nerves of steel and the grit of the track in their teeth, where man and beast seemed to fuse into one, has always been awe inspiring to me. No wonder I caught the fever at an early age and rooted for my favorite horse which I considered no different than any other athlete. For me, it has never been about the southern belles adorned with fancy hats, or the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home.” It is about the athletes who I study carefully just prior to post time. Fortunately, I’ve been pretty lucky in terms of picking a winner. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t pick at least one horse that didn’t finish in the top three positions.
I consider the Derby as the best assemblage of race horses you will see for the year, primarily because it is a bigger field than the Preakness or Belmont Stakes, representing the other two jewels of the Triple Crown. Since the Derby is the “first jewel” there is more excitement and an air of optimism by all of the contenders who are desperately trying to make a name for themselves. Whereas in the other two races, the Derby winner is the focus to be challenged, in the first jewel everyone fears everyone else. Winning a preliminary race prior to the Derby is nice, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee the horse can withstand a full field for 10 furlongs (1+1/4 miles).
Twice during my college years I made the pilgrimage to Louisville with my buddies. As young men we watched the race from the infield which resembled more of a beach atmosphere than a race track. Yet, there were betting facilities, fast food, and portable restrooms available, and of course the Mint Juleps were everywhere.
During one of these visits, I had the good fortune to see the great horse, Secretariat, win in 1973. When you saw this animal, you knew there was something special about him. While the other horses looked handsome and svelte, Secretariat looked like a hardened boxer entering the ring with rippled muscles ready to do battle. I couldn’t imagine anyone betting on another horse that day, he was simply too magnificent a creature to lose. Not only did he win the race, but set the track record which stands to this day, 39 years later, with a time of 1:59.40. Frankly, nobody was surprised when Secretariat won the Triple Crown that year, he simply ran away with it and I was pleased to bear witness. I have never seen a horse like that again.
The Derby also seems to bring the best out of jockeys and there have been a number of good ones who have ridden to victory multiple times at Churchill Downs, including: Bill Hartack, Calvin Borel, Gary Stevens, Pat Day, Bill Shoemaker, Angel Cordero, Jr., and Ron Turcotte, who rode both Secretariat and Riva Ridge to victory.
Today, I’m content to sit back in an easy chair in front of a high-definition color television set and watch the Derby from the comfort of my home in Florida, usually with some friends. The Sunshine State has its fair share of horse farms and race tracks and has produced some serious contenders over the years, so the Derby is a race to be taken seriously down here. I also make it a habit of smoking a good cigar and having some form of libation nearby to enjoy during the race. If I feel a little ambitious, I’ll make a Mint Julep to celebrate the event, but I’ll settle for just about anything. After all, it’s not about Mint Juleps or hats worn by the ladies, it’s about “the finest two minutes of horse racing on the planet.” Good luck.
Keep the Faith!