My First and Last Derby Win

May 4, 1996.  It was a beautiful spring morning.  The sun was alive, the birds were chirping, the air was crisp, and it was Derby Day.  I woke early to prepare for the day and felt a whirlwind of emotions trembling in my stomach as I anticipated a great day of racing.  Only I would be partaking in a different type of racing that afternoon.  I was 18 years old, I was on the brink of graduating high school, and I turned down an invitation from my father to attend the Kentucky Derby just a week earlier.  Instead, I opted to represent my school in the Pike Central Relays in Petersburg, IN.  As a team captain for the track team, I felt it was my responsibility to run that day despite the fact that the PCRs were my least favorite meet of the season. 

As the team congregated outside the gymnasium that morning, we waited for the bus to arrive and all I could talk about was the derby instead of focusing on the meet. Two days before, I intensely studied the racing form and passed $30 over to my father to make three separate bets.  This was big money for a kid making a living as a dishwasher during the winter while trying to save for college in the fall at the same time.  I needed a win to kick off my derby wagering experience and to fatten my wallet in the process.  I was a great admirer of D. Wayne Lukas at the time.  His graying locks, fancy suits, and trademark sunglasses exuded cool.  He was also the defending Kentucky Derby winning trainer. Thunder Gulch gave Lukas his second derby winning horse in 1995 coupled with Winning Colors in 1988.  Unbridled’s Song, trained by James Ryerson, was also putting on a show of his own winning the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial while solidifying himself as the derby favorite.  Sitting at my father’s dining room table, I weighed all my options and placed $10 to win on Unbridled’s Song and Lukas’ two colts Editor’s Note and Grindstone. 

As the track team entered the bus, I was particularly pleased to see the familiar face of Louie the Bus Driver behind the wheel.  Louie was an older gentleman, a race fan, and a family friend.  Without hesitating, I asked Louie the most important question of the day, “Who’s going to win the derby?”  Louie smiled and said that he bet Unbridled’s Song.  Unbridled’s Song was the 7-2 favorite and he was also trying to become the first betting favorite to win the prestigious race since Spectacular Bid in 1979.  I told Louie I liked his chances as well and headed to the back of the bus with a small amount of hope that the two of us could be winners that day.

Running was in my blood.  My grandmother was an athlete in Kansas, my father was a runner in high school, and my older brother was a distance runner winning a city championship in the mile.  I was a decent runner who lived for the sport rather than achieving any great success.  I never broke any records or competed for any titles.  But I won a few races and I could flat out run for miles on end without hesitation.  I loved the competition.  I loved the energy.  I loved to race.  I loved to run.

A race is an uphill battle.  It’s a fight to the finish.  It is a testament to see who has the guts to leave everything out on the track and battle your competitors and yourself to the very end until you cross the finish line.  In my opinion, there is no other thrill of achievement or self-pride than finishing a race. Finishing what you started.  Horse racing represents these same principles.  You pick a horse, scream uncontrollably as it enters the stretch, and pray that it leaves every amount of energy and determination on the track while the other horses watch from behind.  This is what the derby is about.  Pride.  Determination.  Tradition. 

That afternoon, the meet went off without any problems, and for those few short hours I was able to put the derby out of mind and focus on the task at hand.  I was forced to run the 3200 meter relay and 800 meters was my worst distance.  However, I fought through and finished each race giving my all.  As we got back on the bus to head home, I asked Louie who won the race.  He was unsure and I tried frantically to find a radio station on my Walkman to find the results.  Station after station, I was pressed to hear a name, a trainer, some indication of the winner.  I even held a sign out the window asking passing drivers “Who won the derby?”  They gently shrugged their shoulders and continued down Highway 57. 

With the headphones placed on my head and over my ears, I finally heard the news and braced myself for the outcome, “Grindstone has won the Kentucky Derby.” A sentence I’ll never forget.  I screamed with a burst of excitement and pumped my fist into the air several times.  I had won the Kentucky Derby on my first attempt and Lukas had won his third crown.   

As it turned out, Grindstone was coupled with Editor’s Note and my dad placed an extra $10 to win.  So with $30 to win on a $13.80 winner, my pay-day was cherished.  It was also my last derby winner as well.  Unfortunately, the drought continues.  However, in retrospect, I do not regret skipping that first Saturday in May to run in a track meet.  I loved what I did and I knew I was on a short leash.  My racing career ended weeks later, and consequently Grindstone’s career ended just five days after his thrilling victory.  I like to think that we both fought our hardest to prove that we were worthy of calling ourselves competitors in the two sports.  Racing is a test to find inner strength and inner balance.  There is nothing like it.  And even though it has been 15 years since my last derby win, I still have that passion inside of me and I’ll continue to fire at the horses each year until I cross that finish line victorious once again. 

Written by Big Brink

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3 comments

    1. I’d say it’s a safe bet that we can find him strolling around the clubhouse at Ellis Park. Louie is a great guy and once was a regular at my grandparents’ tavern. That should tell you enough…

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