Standing and swaying with my arms interlocked with fellow Kentuckians by birth, Melanie and Brad, while singing “My Old Kentucky Home,” this past Saturday, my mind darted through not only the Kentucky Derby days, but also the Preakness days and Belmont Stakes days. My history is 80 proof and intertwined with horse racing. Every day that I stand by the rail at a horse track, even if I don’t bet, is a great day to behold.
A few minutes later, Justify becomes the latest “America’s Horse” and Kentucky Derby winner but, at that moment, as we sang the last, “For my old Kentucky home, far away,” all of those glorious and, sometimes sad, days shot out of the gate in my mind and were off like horse hooves skipping through time.
Hailing from Walton, Kentucky, (where Melanie grew up) just a few miles from Burlington, Kentucky, where I grew up, Steve Cauthen, aboard Affirmed, races into the history books by fighting off Alydar in all three jewels to claim the Triple Crown. All of the older folks proudly keep reporting, “He’s from here,” over and over. It’s 1978.
It’s 2015, I am at some companies’ manufactured attempt at a Derby party. A stranger comes out of the clouds to comment, with admiration, about how Melanie and I both tear up during the rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home.” We laugh and make a new friend. Moments later, a horse by the name of American Pharoah would win the Kentucky Derby.
It’s this weekend, and as Justify bolts across the line, Brad and Rachel, our Kentucky Derby hosts, are slightly embarrassed at having picked the winning horse out of the hat for three years straight. I repeatedly yell, “It’s a fix!”
It’s 2014 and we’re hosting our first Kentucky Derby party in New Orleans. We have locked our cat Cleo in the dining room since there are so many humans going in and out of our house. Our friend Ginny keeps climbing over the tall, double stacked baby gates and we eventually give up on keeping Cleo locked up. I, being the consummate host, let everyone pick out of the Derby hat before taking the last name. The name I pull is “California Chrome.” It romps to victory and I repeatedly yell, “It’s a fix!”
It’s 2007, we’re standing in the grandstands at the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York watching Rags To Riches upset eventual Horse of the Year Curlin to become the first filly to win the Belmont since 1905. I was there to cheer on Curlin but it’s never a bad day at the track when you witness history. Also of note, much like the Kentucky Derby’s official drink is the Mint Julep, the Belmont Stakes official beverage of choice was the Belmont Breeze, but I’ll be damned if we could find one anywhere that day.
I’m 20 years old, standing inside Turfway Park on a brutally cold night watching my pick, L.B. Damned, win the race with odds of 70-1. Within two weeks I hit on seven long shots and win nearly three thousand dollars. I decide to become a professional horse gambler.
I don’t win a race for the next two years.
It’s 1982, I’m standing along the rail of the backstretch at River Downs with my grandparents and Uncle Charlie, who wasn’t my real uncle. The first time the horses storm past I can feel the thunder of their hooves ripple through my body. The next race, I stand a few feet farther back and my knowing grandfather laughs and winks at me.
It’s any day of the week, any day of any year and I can still cry over Barbaro.
It’s 1998, I’m out in the country celebrating my bachelor party with good friends. The day was all debauchery and bonfire and the only time there was any focus was as Real Quiet, with Maurice, Louisiana’s own Kent Desormeaux on board, lost the Triple Crown to Victory Gallop in a photo finish. Debauchery holds court again.
It’s 2003, I’m standing under what is essentially just some high school bleachers at the smallest horse track I’ve seen, Manor Downs, outside of Austin, Texas. Funny Cide is bested by a better horse named Empire Maker and doesn’t win the Triple Crown.
It’s 1980 and I’m at my grandparents’ Kentucky Derby party. I’m only waist high to everyone and the room smells like bourbon. I’m watching everyone pick horse names out of a top hat. The women send up a cheer as Genuine Risk wins the Derby, becoming the first filly to do so since Regret in 1915. I assume I was probably thinking about my Star Wars figures as “Empire Strikes Back” would be released three weeks later.
It’s 2004, and a wave of disappointment and sadness hits San Antonio Park as we watch Smarty Jones get caught by Birdstone in the final lengths of the Belmont Stakes to lose the Triple Crown. My friend Heather tears up.
It’s 2012, I’m working in Salt Lake City and wake up to the news that I’ll Have Another, going for the Triple Crown, has been scratched from the Belmont Stakes. A cloud of controversy surrounds the announcement, especially after news broke that the owners had a $10 million deal to stand stud in Japan. Records would eventually show that I’ll Have Another had a long history with ailments and tendonitis.
It’s 2008, the world watches in shock as that Louisiana boy Kent Desormeaux eases and then pulls up overwhelming favorite Big Brown in the Belmont Stakes, becoming the first Triple Crown hopeful not to finish. Big Brown, who had cracked his hoof in the Preakness Stakes, is rank and never fires.
Back to 2015, I’m at Liuzza’s by the Track watching American Pharoah run away from the Belmont Stakes’ field and into legend, becoming the first horse in 37 years to win the Triple Crown. All 12 of us in the bar give high fives and eagerly look back upon the dream, a Triple Crown winner.
And like a fine wine with a steak dinner, every game should be accompanied by a beverage and song.
Beer Pairing: Bluegrass Brewing Company’s “Dark Star” Porter
Playlist Recommendation: Loretta Lynn – “Van Lear Rose”
Around the Way
I’ve mentioned that I was worried that the Saints didn’t pick up a quarterback to develop in this year’s draft and the NFL pundits were agog at how much capital the Saints gave up to draft Marcus Davenport out of UT-San Antonio. It was an interesting draft.
Now, I don’t think the Saints should’ve gone after a quarterback in the first round but, boy oh boy, will there be pressure to have Davenport on the field and contributing from day one. I knew the pick would be controversial, I just didn’t realize it was near historic. Check out this paragraph from profootballtalk.com about the pick.
“It actually is unusual for a team to give up two first-round picks to trade up to draft a defensive player: It hasn’t happened in 15 years.”
Welcome to New Orleans, Mr. Davenport.