Kentucky Derby a compelling tradition

Carry Back was my first favorite Kentucky Derby winner, watching on television in 1961 as the little horse came from 16 lengths behind with a stirring run down the stretch.

I was just a kid, but I knew someday, I had to see the Kentucky Derby. It took until 1991 for that to become reality, and as a sports reporter, too, allowing me behind the scenes entre.

I approached the Derby as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but from this one-time-only journey, I expanded to I-will-go-whenever-I-can. This 2020 first Saturday in May, here I am an hour north of Churchill Downs and I can’t go because there is no Derby, postponed until September because of COVID-19.

What a show we are missing. The Derby is the most exciting two minutes in sports, and when it comes to pageantry, it is without equal on the American sports scene. Never mind the organized stuff like an official parade. The Race for the Roses, the 1¼-mile run, is an icon on the annual sports calendar.

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To me, the real thrill, though, the icing on the week, is spending mornings at the barns, the backside, as the stable area is called. That’s where the atmosphere oozes, just as the sun is coming up and splashing the track.

Trainers, grooms, exercise riders build the same kind of sweat as the horses, all of them fine-tuning, building to the culmination of the grand week. The animals are led cautiously between barns and track. They are fed their oat concoctions and bathed with buckets of soapy water.

The backside is a dream factory, temporary home to the special 3-year-olds who made it this far from their class of thoroughbreds, winnowed down from 40,000 foals. They are all treated like royalty, but by Saturday night, there will be only one king.

There are no sure things in horse racing, only informed or wild opinion, gut feelings or acquired savvy. And there is always hope, some of it backed by big bucks, some because the owner, the breeder, the trainer, the rider are committed believers.

I have attended and written about 11 Kentucky Derby races during an era when the favorite almost never wins. I concluded unless you are a one of the truly knowledgeable handicappers, betting on this most unpredictable race might be as haphazard as putting your $2 down on a horse because you like its name.

Go ahead and study The Daily Racing Form, read every word and number about trends, genealogical history, past performances, but don’t count on anything or everything. You might win. You might not. Do not get too financially invested. Best to just absorb the scene, including the mass of humanity in the infield, cheap-seat visitors who may not have spent a year making a fancy new hat but who have at least as much fun.

They are the purest of partygoers, whose illegal transport of liquor into the Downs is often intercepted by vigilant-eyed officers of the law, who know all of the tricks about where 90 proof stuff can be stashed, taped to the bottom of a little red wagon or to a midsection.

In 1991, the horses of the moment, the favorites, were Hansel, Best Pal and Strike the Gold. While people bet win, place, show, and there is money to be made for a horse’s seconds, it is less prestigious to come in third in the Derby than to win a bronze medal in the Olympics.

When the gate clangs open and the horses burst free, the fans’ roar is a release of tension, surrendering emotions for two minutes. They are enthralled by the spectacle, cheering the mob of up to 20 horses, then celebrating victory or bemoaning defeat.

One horse gains everlasting fame, preserved on the big board of memory. One goes down in history while the others seek redemption in the Preakness or Belmont.

The winner was Strike the Gold, who struck gold under trainer Nick Zito and jockey Chris Antley. When he exhaled, Antley said, “It’s unbelievable. Right now, I’m pretty much in shock.”

Shock wears off over time, receding to a nice, permanent glow reminiscing about that year when you were feted as winner of the Kentucky Derby.