The roses are blooming in the hot house buildings at Churchill Downs. For the throngs of fans, we see them in our hearts year long. I remember doing a radio show years ago for Turfway Park. Our producer secured us a spot in the old press box area, and I had never attended a Kentucky Derby. Just like the race itself, we don’t know what to expect until we get there.
I can remember the crisp Louisville morning as we rode an elevator to the inner-sanctum. The walls were filled with the greatest scribes that ever covered racing. I walked the entire room and looked at every one. You saw old black and white photos, and knew they have long since passed our way. The look in their eyes, their stately pose, and how they seemed to stare on forever brought me a chill. As we walked onto a tiered deck, I didn’t’ know what to expect. I thought we might be able to see part of the track, and didn’t think about making a bet as it would have been out of the question. All of that was fine as I began stepping closer to our station.
We were right on the finish line. The roses were a shade of red I’ve never seen before, and the track was a manicured perfection. As I looked around there were some of the famous voices and faces I have followed for years. I had a phone book of notes and quips that would be my best. I had all of the materials every handicapper should own before making your first bet. Just as I was being counted in by the producer, I did something I never do before covering a big event. I tossed away the notes and spoke from the heart. The Kentucky Derby does not deserve a rehearsed speech. I didn’t want to look back and wish I had done something different. It may have been the manicured track, the beauty, or my first time being invited to the club. Derby fever had taken hold of my senses, and for a moment in time I was truly a part of the game.
If you had one more time to go to the track. Where would you go? Would you take a loved one who is gone, or would you relish the day alone? If you could choose any place and time. Where would we find you? For me, I’d like to get in the mental time machine and see that glorious day again. When I think back to that morning at Churchill Downs, there were a few that I would’ve loved to had with me. It’s not about me, it’s about sharing a moment with the ones we know would have felt the same. There is no glory or achievement if you don’t share the experience. I never wanted to ride the roller coaster alone, and I wanted to take folks who would love it more than me. If you collect things, you will have nothing in the end. It’s all about the journey and not about just the destination. Oh how I would have loved to have shared this time with a precious few.
First, I would love to have had my grandpa there. He was a $2 bettor who loved the races. He met his wife at old Latonia Race Course, and they married on the way to the 1937 Kentucky Derby. He would drive out and watch the last two or three races a few nights a week. His days were spent in the back of a bar room. He didn’t drink a drop, but a bookie was stationed there who would take wagers. He loved gambling, and the action was his enjoyment. I was his the first grandchild, and he called me “#1.” His #1 boy. I would have loved to had him sit back and take it all in. He wouldn’t have said a peep, but would have sat there like a statue absorbing every word. I guess all grand-parents would be proud, but this day would have been special. He would have loved the idea that I had the opportunity to do what I loved, as he had the best seat in the house. A guy who rambled along in the grandstand, would have been sitting there staring out at the roses, smoking a Dutch Master’s cigar.
I started going with my Dad years ago. I used to tag along as he taught me over time to read the past performances. Friends more than father and son, and best friends at that. But time can sour those sweet moments. We get lost along the way confusing the past, and finding dissatisfaction with the future. We get scared and doubt sets in. Days turn to months, and the person you would have first called doesn’t feel the same. I would have liked to take the guy I loved more than any, but the guy about 15 years younger. When he used to love going to the races and experiencing the action. He wouldn’t have been a history buff for the location, but he would have been ready to take on the day. Athletes are always competitors whether they know it or not, and he was one helluva’ player. He would have sat back not saying a word but just nodding his head reading the form. He wouldn’t have missed the day for a guy who would have acted like it was an imposition to go to the Derby. This would have been the perfect day sharing it with the guy I loved more than any other.
The Derby evokes emotions and summons memories from far away places. This Saturday, I’m leaving for the Fair Grounds and the 102nd Louisiana Derby. Life is just too damn short to wait for the next bus as it never seems to arrive. I’m looking forward to meeting good friends and taking in the day. The weather won’t matter, and winning or losing for once won’t be part of the plan. I’m going to enjoy the journey, and not the destination. It’s been awhile since I’ve been this excited, and few would even know I’m going. Oh, I’ll be trying my best to find the winners, but the day at the races will be extra special. The sights and the smells, the history of New Orleans, and the time spent with friends.