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Derby Day

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This was my second Kentucky Derby—the first being in 1994. Seems like a different lifetime ago, and in many ways it is. As I wrote on my website (in the “About” section) a few months ago, I much prefer Breeders’ Cup Day and didn’t need to attend another Derby unless I owned a horse running. Well, that wasn’t the case this year but it was a close second. I was an invited guest of the Reddam-O’Neill team, which sent out GREAT HUNTER and LIQUIDITY.

After attending a rainy Oaks Day, our group had an early night on Friday night in preparation for the long day on Saturday. And I mean long. Took a cab from the hotel to the track around noon (Eastern) and had to do my segment of the Thoroughbred Los Angeles radio show on my cell phone from the car. Not ideal circumstances for caller or listener as I lost cell contact once and had to call back in. I talked about how I was going to play the race, requiring that either my top choice CURLIN or second choice STREET SENSE would have to win the race, then I would need ANY GIVEN SATURDAY to finish second or third (with ALL in the other spots) in order to hit the trifecta. As we now know, I had the top spot covered but got no run out of ‘SATURDAY, so I wasn’t able to capture lightning in a bottle by hitting the Derby tri two years in a row.

Got in (but not before the O’Neill brothers’ nephew Patrick somehow lost his Derby ticket on the ride over, leaving a very expensive present for the next person to hail that cab), got seated and went to work on the last half of the card. I only bet a handful of races while there, having neither the time nor inclination to get down and dirty with handicapping a circuit that I don’t regularly follow. My plays would be simple: put some money into the guaranteed Pick 4 (races 7-10) and play trifectas in the Derby.

My Pick 4 ticket was alive after the first two legs, then it was time to head to the backstretch and participate in the traditional “Derby Walkover” with the two O’Neill-trained horses. The wait is long—there was still another race in between, then about an hour between the Woodford Reserve and the Derby. We passed the time joking around, the connections trying to cut the tension with light-hearted banter. An informal  strategy session between owner and trainer. Watched the Woodford from the big sceen behind the 5/8ths pole as my Pick 4 ticket died a less-than-heroic death. Shortly thereafter came the call over the backside loudspeaker to get the Derby horses ready to be at the “gap” (area where horses enter the main track from backstretch) in five minutes. It was actually a reality now. Doug O’Neill wanted to take his horses out last, cutting down on the time they would circle around in the chute until all 20 runners were present. With STREET SENSE saddled in the barn right behind them, it was like a boxing match to see who would enter the ring first. O’Neill’s horses ended up going out right in front of the eventual winner, while I snapped digital pictures along the way. Trainer and owner embraced, acknowledging the enormous accomplishment of getting two horses into the Run for the Roses.

I have always heard about the thrill those involved feel during the Walkover. Fans lining the rail and shouting encouragement to horses and connections. This was one part of the trip I was hoping to be able to experience. And I got my wish. What a thrill it was to look up at the packed grandstand, with fans standing and cheering and whooping it up for their favorite horse. This has been going on for 133 years and I was getting the chance to experience what a relatively few had experienced before me. I got goosebumps and tears in my eyes while making that emotional walk over, thinking about how lucky I was to be able to make a living doing something that I love. About all the great people I have met along the way. About what a great tradition the Derby represents. Graditude, friendship, tradition—three of the most important things in life.

GREAT HUNTER and LIQUIDITY didn’t fire but it did not diminish the Derby experience for those involved. Everyone had a great time and is looking forward to getting back to Kentucky again next year. Special thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Reddam and the O’Neill families for their incredible generosity and hospitality. Hopefully I can reciprocate some day.

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