Derby day has the tendency to attract big names and big stars to the Downs each year. It is fun to see these people and shake their hands if possible. But in all the glitz and glamour, the real stars take a back seat to the big names of Hollywood. To me the real stars are the ones that shine the brightest on the first Saturday in May. The real stars are the racing personalities. One year, I was more excited to shake hands with 3-time derby winning jockey than former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis. And in a chance encounter, I met a racing star along the historic track at Churchill Downs in 1999.
We didn’t have seats that year opposed to my first two derby experiences. We stood on the bricks; our meeting area. My father had his owner’s license and arranged for us to meet a family friend, a fellow horse owner, on the backside. As my family passed through the tunnel and out into the open air, the sun illuminated the sky and welcomed us onto the dirt track. In an act of awe, we stood and gazed up at the twin spires and the overwhelming crowd of racing fans. It was a familiar sight, but not from this perspective. We tried to soak it in and relish the moment for as long as humanly possible.
We made our way along the first turn talking and laughing, enjoying the moment. In a few short hours, the derby field would be making this same trip, but in a different manner. As we continued along the outside rail, I saw a familiar face approaching. Without hesitating, I reached out my hand and wished the gentleman good luck that afternoon. It was trainer Elliot Walden. He thanked me and returned the handshake without breaking stride. It was a moment of excitement, a moment of pride. Many celebrities may only extend a smile and continue walking with their police escorts to their suites high in the sky. But, the racing personalities recognize the fans because without them the derby would not be considered the greatest two minutes of sports. Horse racing in general would not be where it is without the fans.
Walden finished second that afternoon with Menifee. He later retired from training and is now the racing manager for Winstar Farms, owner of last year’s winner Super Saver and this year’s contender Brethren. I stuck to my guns that year and bet 3rd place finisher Cat Thief. Although I didn’t win that day, I took comfort in the fact that I am a racing fan and my encounter with Mr. Walden eclipsed my loss in the big race. I may never have the opportunity to walk along the track again and witness the beautiful sea of spectators or meet a derby winning personality, but it’s moments like these that bring me back each and every year and fill me with hope of a chance encounter with a derby legend.