Derby Experience

A look back at a selected few Kentucky Derby moments or memories.

The Morning Line: Smarty Jones

Smarty Jones will always be remembered for one of the most spectacular Triple Crown bids that ended just short of legendary. For a horse that was wasn’t on the experts radar for the better part of the Derby Prep season, he came storming through the first two legs before being denied by the slimmest of heart breaking margins. Smarty Jones is a true thoroughbred champion and very deserving of the derby prep race named in his honor.  The Smarty Jones Stakes is scheduled for Monday January 16. 

Looking back

His racing career officially got underway late sophomore season when he scored back to back wins by no less than 7 ½ lengths. By then, Owners Roy and Patricia Chapman must have had a good feeling about their colt. After that it was Trainer John Servis who gets applause for his approach towards the first Saturday in May.   (more…)

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A Chance Encounter

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.

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.  (more…)