I awoke from a dream the other night. You know, as men get older we spend more time letting the dog and ourselves out for overnight relief. But I digress from the image you have about my old dog and his middle age owner. Racing has been my passion, an outlet, a time of reflection, and the best sport where you still wager $2 and get some needed cardio chasing dreams. But on this night I was speaking with my grandpa. – Not venturing into the world of Dickens being visited by haunting images of my life, but rather a peaceful kind of visit where you wish you could go from time to time.
My grandpa was plumber by trade, and horse player by love. He had Beagle hounds he ran at trials, and was always tinkering in his garage. That’s where I pulled up in my new Sunbird and had a good chat with him on this bright sunny afternoon. – ” Hello Number 1.” That was my name as I was the first grandchild and the first boy. His number one boy. – “Hey Papaw, whatcha ya’ doing ?” – He was tinkering in his garage gathering copper fittings and pipe left over from another job, and he would venture over and sell his scrap to play some races. He wasn’t going to break the bank with this money, but it sure had his name on it for visiting the Latonia Trotters that evening.
“I’m heading over to River Downs, you want to take a ride with me? – “Naaah, Mamaw was making dinner and I want to clean up this mess.” – Dinner was served at 4:00 pm, and the only thing that rivaled his love of the ponies was eating. Well, maybe we’ll call that one a dead heat. – “You wanna make a bet or two ? I have the paper right here.” – He looked up from his glasses and grabbed it from my hand quick as lightning. – Before you know it he had written out three bets on his plumbing stationary that was as old as I was. – He said “go get em’ Number 1.” – He knew I loved the ponies just as he did, and having some daytime action was the best news of the day.
My grandparents met at the old Latonia Race Course outside of what is now the city of Latonia. – She was with her friend Virginia Kordenbrock and they were out for the day when a soft faced gentleman kindly introduced himself as they enjoyed the races as a threesome. – I think he had his eye on Virginia, but wound up taking my grandmother-to-be on another date. – They married in the Carroll County courthouse in 1938, and they had business to tend as they were heading to the Kentucky Derby on this first Saturday in May. – Lawrin was the winner, and I still have the original program in my walnut cabinet that holds the memories of a lifetime. The cabinet was theirs and my mother made sure it landed in my hands when they no longer needed such a beautiful piece. – I’ve made it my own with memories from every track I’ve worked and they are separated on three shelves. It has intricate carving and the delicate glass doors glow with a soft overhead light that shines with pride on the memories of my life as a racing fan. I even have some of the last of his Bruce Plumbing stationary along with his binoculars and a few items that remind me of him. – If you’re lucky, when you open the doors you can smell the faint aroma of his cigar lingering in the background keeping a watchful eye.
I remember years of family picnics under the old oak tree at River Downs, and later I was allowed to tag along with him and my Dad as they drove out for the last few races. – The years rolled by quicker than a warm summer day, and I always stayed in touch with my visits. – He always wanted to know what I was up to, and during my life he was my special fan. – I was the world’s worst baseball player, but if you dared mention that. This gentle man may have reared back and taken a poke at you. He was a semi-pro player back in the old days, and from what I hear he was pretty darn good. – For some of our visits he would be sitting in the back yard listening to the Reds game on radio waiting to see if my Mamaw was going to bring him his ice cream. – We would talk for hours and pass the time with tidbits of nothing. Looking back, these made for the best conversations.
His last real Derby wager was on Ferdinand. It was the 1986 Derby and one of his last. The following year his health started falling in decline and slowly he pulled away from the game that brought him joy. – When he was in the hospital he was so weak he hadn’t spoken in days. They were trying everything to make him comfortable and tried a test that was a last gift. – They injected him directly into his heart as they were looking for anything to work with. – As I made my way, I was warned by the staff he would be sitting up and talking. Matter of fact he was talking all morning and asked if he could have some ice cream. – They advised me this wouldn’t last and because of his advanced age he would regress back into his weakened state. This is where I met him for my dream visit.
As I walked in I asked ” Whatcha’ doing Papaw ?” – He had the brightest smile and said, “Hello Number 1 Boy.” – The nurses allowed me to stay in the ICU, and we talked for over an hour. He even had his ice cream. – We talked about his life as a boy playing ball and the winners he had at the races. It was as if he never declined and I kept hoping they were wrong as his voice was strong and his color good. – I was finally asked to leave, and he gave me a kiss and a hug. – “Talk to you later, Number 1.” – That was the last time I saw him alive, and I guess it’s been awhile since we’ve spoken.
The dog started barking to be let in as I stared at my cabinet all lit up and shining. I guess I had him on my mind and just missed our little talks. – No matter what I was doing in life he was always proud. – I sure wish he could have seen the many years I’ve worked at the track. Sure as silk he would have drove around talking to his old friends about his Number 1 Boy. – Here is a little secret I’ve never told anyone. I have his Zippo lighter, and his ashtray sits right next to my desk now. Anytime I’ve had an interview or a new job in racing, the lighter was in my pocket or a section of my briefcase. – I wanted him to be there, and in a way he was. I have been blessed to work at the track. – I’ve had positions at River Downs, (Latonia) which became Turfway Park, Keeneland, and Belterra Park. I guess it’s good to know “Papaw” is still with me when I’m at the races.