I’ve been in a committed relationship for 37 years. That’s how long it’s been since I attended my first Kentucky Derby and fell in love with everything that is Kentucky Derby. It may have helped foster the quick union that my first Derby was to see one of the all-time greats Spectacular Bid get his Derby win for the Meyerhoffs, Grover “Bud” Delp and Ronnie Franklin. Now at the time I had little idea that I was witnessing greatness but it was still a cool sports moment to a 15 year old kid.
In this series of blogs and articles I am going to recap my experiences at the subsequent 18 Derbies I was able to attend first hand and share some thoughts on my wagering highlights and lowlights over the years.
There are 33 days until the Derby so I’ll try to cover one a day until this year’s rendition of My Old Kentucky Home on May 7th.
Ok, let’s get started by digressing a year from 1978. My first non-live Derby memory is foggy and murky but that’s because I was on a scuba diving open water check out dive in Pensacola Florida in 1977 on Derby weekend and my strongest memory is that visibility in the open water Gulf of Mexico was near nil. As in you could not see the fins of the person in front of you from 3 feet. I had been diving in the Caribbean before – yes fact safety checkers I was uncertified – and knew that water could be crystal clear. This was not the case in Florida but we made it through. I demanded of my dad that we make it back to the hotel room in time to tune in to the Derby battle between Affirmed and Alydar so despite being 14 I had been bitten by the Derby bug that year. And, we made it back to the hotel and I’m pretty sure I was pulling for Believe It as even then I was a contrarian and didn’t want to pull for the two favorites.
My Derby prognostication record started out with a loss. But, I was smitten.
In 1979, I was lucky enough to get my first live look at the Derby as part of a group of dads and sons from Baton Rouge’s Phil’s Oyster Bar backroom. The group included Joe Dean, a local doctor Dr. Anthony Leggio and the owner of Phil’s – Gus Piazza. What? You thought he would be named Phil?
So, this group of a dozen plus melting pot families set off for the Derby. Now, this was not Joe Dean’s first Derby. In fact, by that time Joe had been to at least 20 Derby Day’s that began during his time as a kid in Indiana. My most lasting memory of this trip was walking with Mr. Dean from our parking spot at the funeral home we had secured a few blocks away from the track and having dozens of people yell to him and stop him on the street to have him say, “string music.” Joe Dean was a rock star in Kentucky and it was pretty cool to walk with him through the throngs of fans. He was also as big a fan of horse racing as he was basketball and loved to handicap and bet the ponies. I don’t remember much more about that trip except that I knew I when I walked out of the track that I could not wait to get back in the gates.
Yeah, Spectacular Bid won the race but I’m certain my 2-dollar WPS bet didn’t hit as I think I was picking Flying Paster from the West Coast which was the beginning of a West Coast bias relationship that ultimately paid off in spades a few years later.
Our trips to Louisville were not of the budget variety. We flew on a private plane, we stayed at the Galt House and we sat in a 3rd floor Clubhouse box for the first few years as well as having a private room fully catered on the third floor. These were as we refer to them as the “salad days” for all. Times were good and our dads were keen on sharing great experiences with their boys that included trips to Belmont, Saratoga and the Keeneland sales. After this first trip to the Derby I had no idea that we would continue this annual trek for another 15 years with many memorable moments I’ll try to remember and share over the course of this series of blogs so stay tuned.