Derby Dreams

As we fight back the tears when “My Old Kentucky Home” plays, you know the sport is more than just about winning money. There are stories to be told, and the magic is thick in the air. Any person who makes a dollar wager will make a bet on the Kentucky Derby. It’s game #7 of the World Series, the Super Bowl, or the NCAA Finals. For two minutes, every person who watches the race becomes a Thoroughbred racing fan.

Long ago, I had dreams of going to the Derby. I thought it would be a magical place that stood still in time. The throngs of people would be worth the price of admission. I could smell the roses, and hear the bugle as they called them on the track. When the Louisville marching band played “My Old Kentucky Home,” would I cry ? – How long are the betting lines ? – Can you hear the race called live ?? – I know, many questions and only a few answers. – I was working at Turfway Park doing a weekly radio show. It was the greatest job in the world, and I would have paid them to do it. I got to talk horses with callers, big time racing connections, and handicap the marquee races. How sweet for a guy from little Ludlow, Kentucky. A place where the Derby would be watched at home, or listened to in the town bars. Long before simulcast wagering, you had to go to the races, or make a bet with a bookie. Relatives that I didn’t know we’re calling my dad to get down a bet. We would drive out and visit my aunt and uncle, and get their bets which would include the whole neighborhood. It was a hustle and bustle day and I was only a kid. Yeah, it was safe to say that I had Derby Fever.

My hometown was about 100 miles away from Louisville. It might as well been a million miles, as going to the big race was for other people. My grandpa Norman Bruce asked my Grandmother Kathryn Gilliam to join him to watch the Derby.  They made the trek from our town only to stop in Gallatin county to grab a bite to eat, and get married at the justice of the peace. It was 1938, and the great Lawrin won under the guided hand of Eddie Arcaro. I didn’t bother looking it up as I’m holding a 1938 program from the day they got married. He marked down every price, winner he had, and other notes from a man who was starting his life. I have many souvenirs, memories, and personal items from his life. He was just a young man and his life was about to begin. I guess remembering your anniversary was easy, and the drive home must have been short. I guess he had the fever as well.

Going to the VFW for the Derby became a yearly event. You would have to be a member, or spend your life around the many folks who would gather. My dad and I would have a Daily Racing Form, grab some seats at a table, and read over the info. He would have a beer, and I would get a Coke. There was a large radio that was tuned to WKYT, and we would hear the major stakes races called live. Downstairs was a bookie operation. You would walk down, make a cash bet, and receive a ticket. Once the prices were read on-air, you would cash in your winnings or toss it in the can. It was the greatest thing on Earth, and I was sure it couldn’t get any better. As I entered high school, the local track had a simulcast race on the Kentucky Derby. The VFW went back to having a few members drinking beer and listening to the ball game, and the hundred or so bettors would find other avenues. Times were a changing, and I didn’t have a clue where they would take me.

That brings me back to the weekend radio show. I worked my way from the parking lot, and with a little luck and a bit of work. I found myself climbing a ladder that would lead to my greatest dreams. – Saturday mornings would have me up early as I would drive to Cincinnati to a local radio station. For one hour every Saturday, I was my happiest. I was one of the listeners who were cutting the grass, listening on-line, or in the car on the way to the track. I had no delusion of being anything special, as I only wanted to bring the game closer to people like me.  I wanted you to take the ride with me. – It was the final month of our show contract, and I was thinking about the Derby. It was at this time I was asked would I like to do our final show from Churchill Downs ? We would be live from the Derby high atop in the press box. I couldn’t believe my luck, as I was going to the races. – We had press credentials, and I felt like I was sneaking into the movies as a kid. The elevator took us up to the top, and we walked into a large room filled with pictures from the past. Jockeys, horses, owners and trainers, and the great writers who typed out the action the nation would read. As we walked out onto a large balcony, there were radio programs from around the world taking place. The famous names, and the industry faces held court in this high palace of racing. As we were setting up, the producer was connecting wires and getting people on hold. I was looking around and fumbling across my rehearsed notes and pages. I wanted to sound good, and make no mistakes. I was having trouble finding the right pages with my opening thoughts when I looked up to see the winner’s circle located a hundred yards away. The brilliant red roses and the horseshoe shaped hedges waited patiently as history was just hours away. I looked back at my written pages and decided to speak from the heart. I was in the place where my grandfather brought my grandmother on their wedding day. The place where Caywood Ledford would describe in full color on that VFW radio. The place where my dad and I would make long distance wagers and think about having a big score. As they counted me in, I could feel a tear in the corner of my eye as I tried to bring you along for the ride. I was there, I finally made it to the Derby. It was just as I had dreamed of, as I could hear the thundering hooves running into the pages of history.