Could Go Horse Talkin' Derby Memories

Posted: April 30, 1999

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Tomorrow is Kentucky Derby 125 for the world, 15 for me.

On May 5, 1978, the card was nearing an end at Pimlico. I don't remember much about that, but I knew where I wanted to be the next day. I wanted to be at Churchill Downs betting on Affirmed in the Derby.

In those pre-simulcast days, there were only two choices: Be at the track where the race was being run or make an illegal bet with a bookmaker. Never would I consider anything illegal so I headed for the Baltimore-Washington Airport.

A few hours later, I arrived at Standiford Field, just a few miles from the Twin Spires. There were two problems. The race wasn't for 20 hours and I had no place to stay.

So I slept in the airport, got up before dawn and walked to the track. Spent the morning outside the gates eating corndogs, trying not to notice all the debauchery and dreaming about Affirmed.

Alydar, they were all talking about Alydar. He was owned by Calumet Farm, horse racing aristocracy. How could he lose?

Affirmed was how he could lose. "The Kid" was riding. Steve Cauthen was Kentucky, just like Calumet.

The day, slowly, very slowly, drifted toward the Derby. Alydar was 6-5; Affirmed 9-5. I bet all my money.

Having no seat, I found a very drunk man with a nice view of the race track. I gave him a mint julep I had just pilfered from another very drunk man and offered to tell him what was going on if I could just stand in front of him. He accepted the offer.

As the horses ran down the backstretch, I explained to him that the race was over. Affirmed was in perfect stalking position. Alydar was in another county. The man mumbled something about Alydar. I told him to sit down and shut up. He did.

So did all those Alydar people. Affirmed cruised home by a length and a half. Alydar came over the county line to be second. I cashed all my tickets, got on a bus going somewhere (I had no idea where), found a restaurant (I have no idea where) and celebrated. Took a cab back to the airport. Gave the driver more than he could have envisioned and slept on the floor again. Got on a plane in the morning and went home, a little richer and very much wiser about the Derby.

The last 14 times I've come, I've actually stayed in a hotel. It's nicer, but, somehow, not the same.

Wasn't here 20 years ago, but will never forget Spectacular Bid. Trainer Bud Delp called him "the greatest horse to ever look through a bridle."

It was hyperbole, but not much. The Bid, Native Dancer and Man 'O War (didn't run in the Derby) were the three greatest horses not to win the Triple Crown.

Bid won 26 of 30 races. Had two separate 10-race winning streaks. Broke seven track records. Still holds the world record for a mile and a quarter. Went off at 1-10 six times and 1-20 eight times. Won at 15 different tracks in nine states. Two decades later, he's the last favorite and last 2-year-old champion to win the Derby.

A decade ago, the best 3-year-old since Bid came to Churchill. Easy Goer, a son of Alydar, couldn't lose. I told the Daily News readers that. I was wrong.

Derby Day was rainy, miserable and cold, very cold, the coldest Derby on record. Pat Day, the local hero, won the five races before the Derby. He was on Easy Goer. Day had won everything, but had never won the Derby. This was going to be his day of days.

Only Charlie Whittingham didn't see it that way. The great trainer saw Sunday Silence in the winner's circle. He told everybody all week it would happen. He was right. Most everybody, including me, was wrong.

Sunday Silence won it by 21/2 lengths. Easy Goer staggered through the mud to be second.

Three years earlier, Whittingham, then 73, had become the oldest trainer to win the Derby when Ferdinand and ageless Bill Shoemaker came through a hole at the top of the stretch and won it at 17-1. He set the bar even higher with Sunday Silence.

They buried America's greatest horse trainer a week ago in California. The word legend is overused these days. Charlie Whittingham was a legend. A decade ago, I learned that you always listen to a legend.

My first Derby for the Daily News was 1987. I never saw the race. I was in the back of Bob Levy's box, watching Levy, his family and friends scream their lungs out for Bet Twice. Bet Twice took the lead in the stretch, but couldn't withstand Alysheba and lost by less than a length.

It was exhilarating just being that close to somebody that close to the Derby. Unless you're there and can feel it, you can't understand.

The filly Winning Colors won it the next year. Trainer Wayne Lukas, obsessed with the Derby, had finally gotten his first.

In 1992, I pronounced Arazi a fraud. And he was. Who knew a Pennsylvania-bred named Lil E. Tee with Day (finally) would win?

There were all the old folks winning - Cal Partee, Paul Mellon, Frances Genter, Bill Young, Bob and Beverly Lewis.

Now, staring straight ahead at Derby 125, it's hard to forget Derby 100 when Cannonade and Angel Cordero stormed past half the record field of 23 to win for my favorite trainer ever, Woody Stephens. The 163,628 at the track that day was a record then and remains the record now. They buried the Wood Man last August.

Tomorrow, trainer Bob Baffert, presumably without a cell phone in each ear during the race, will go for his record third straight Derby with two or three very legitimate horses. Baffert isn't Charlie or Woody. He's different.

The Derby, however, is the same. It's timeless. It's Citation, Secretariat and Seattle Slew. It's Eddie Arcaro, Bill Hartack and Gary Stevens. It's Ben Jones, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons and Max Hirsch. It's the Derby.

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