return to the derby

By Dick Jerardi

I was hanging out at Pimlico on a Friday afternoon in 1978 when I suddenly decided to head for the Baltimore Airport, catch a plane to Louisville and attend the Kentucky Derby the next day. No hotel, no ticket, no clue.

The only thing I knew was that Affirmed was going to win the Derby. And I wanted to be there to bet on him.

It was so long ago that I have no memory of whether I flew directly or needed a connection. I do remember sleeping in the Louisville Airport and heading for Churchill Downs very early the next morning.

Walking through some very tall and very wet grass and then some neighborhoods and, finally, after a few miles, arriving at the corner of Fourth Street and Central Ave. and immediately being overwhelmed by the sights and sounds that surrounded Churchill Downs with its iconic Twin Spires shimmering across the race track. Mostly, I remember the corn dogs that were being sold on that corner.

 I think I bought a general admission ticket. And then I waited and waited and waited. Finally, it was time to run the Derby. Alydar was favored at 6-5. Affirmed the second choice at 9-5 with 18-year-old Steve Cauthen riding. I bet my $200 to win on Affirmed.

 I had somehow gotten into the grandstand and had a great view of the race. Affirmed was always in perfect position and was well clear when he ran by me just inside the eighth pole. Then, I caught sight of Alydar, who was way back early, flying by me, running as fast as I have ever seen a horse run to this day. For an instant, I thought he might even catch Affirmed, but Affirmed was long gone. Alydar was second, a theme that would be repeated at Pimlico and Belmont Park as Affirmed went on to win one of the most memorable Triple Crowns.

 I think I took a bus downtown to celebrate. Ended up in a rooftop restaurant (might have been the Galt House Hotel that is right on the Ohio River that separates Kentucky and Indiana). Took a cab back to the airport, slept for a few hours, and flew home.

 That was Kentucky Derby No. 1. This will be Derby No. 34.

 I went back in 1984 when I was writing for a small paper in Baltimore. And then went back every year from 1987 until 2017 when I covered horse racing for the “Philadelphia Daily News.’’

 I didn’t miss the Derby in 2018 or 2019 when the weather was awful. I did not miss it in 2020 when it was run in September with almost no fans. I didn’t miss it last year when it was run with a half-full grandstand.

 But when my friend and host of “Let’s Go Racing’’ Dani Gibson said she wanted to attend the Derby, I began to think about what I actually did miss. And said, you know what, it’s time.

 So Derby No. 1 for Dani, Derby No. 1  in five years for me.

 Dinner at Pat’s Steaks (not that Pat’s Steaks, this place has real steak and tablecloths) Tuesday night with some old friends. Watch the Derby and Oaks horses train Wednesday morning from the grandstand. Hang out on the backstretch later that morning and Thursday morning. Try to separate fact from fiction when speaking with owners and trainers about their Derby horses. Wander by the barns where Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and Barbaro were before they ran in the Derby.

 Maybe, hit the corner of 4th and Central again and marvel at how much everything has changed from 1978. Central Ave, two lanes I think back then, now looks like a highway. New additions tower over the Twin Spires. The Derby is one major American event that just keeps getting bigger, the demand for suites, seats, food, drink, action is insatiable.

 Hit the track Thursday afternoon for what they now call “Thurby.’’ Oaks Day on Friday and memories of Cathryn Sophia’s score in 2016, giving Parx Hall of Fame trainer John Servis the Oaks/Derby double. And then, just as everybody that has been there all week is starting to fade, the main event.

 On my first two Derby Days, I got to the track just after dawn. Over time, I learned that it is the longest day in sports and those who arrive too early have nothing left for the finish. So, we will get to the track at a reasonable time on Derby Day, possibly (definitely) bet some races, maybe go to the backside for the walkover, get a good spot in the grandstand media seating area, see the Derby horses parade by with “My Old Kentucky Home’’ playing.

 Then, it will be time to check out the blur that is 20 horses running to the first turn, try to make sense of what is happening on the big screen as the field rolls down the backstretch and then watch the leaders as they head to the finish line.

And then, in just two minutes, it’s over.

 But you know what. It’s never really over. No matter if it’s your first time or your 34th time, there is simply nothing like the Kentucky Derby. Can’t wait to get there.

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