unforgettable kentucky derby experience

By Dick Jerardi

A few minutes into our flight home Sunday, after five days in Louisville, “Let’s Go Racing’’ host Dani Gibson looked out the window and saw a race track hard by the Ohio River. It was Belterra Park (once called River Downs), the present home track of Sonny Leon. Of course.

From the time we landed in Kentucky (the Cincinnati Airport is in Northern Kentucky) Tuesday afternoon and drove the 90 minutes to Louisville until we headed back to the airport Sunday morning, it was a whirlwind, Dani going to her first Kentucky Derby, me to my 34th, but first in five years.

We met up with many of my longtime friends (and Dani’s new friends) for dinner Tuesday night at Pat’s Steaks where the lima beans and Derby Pie (pronounced Paaaah) were to die for. A field of 15 was in an upstairs room at Pat’s where they can’t use the words Derby Pie because it is trademarked. But we can and we did.

My mission for the week was to show Dani around while retracing many of the steps I had made for those oh so many years. It began early Wednesday morning at Churchill Downs and ended late Saturday night at Churchill Downs.

 All those steps and all those sights did not prepare us or anybody for an ending that, even after it was official, still seemed close to impossible.

 We watched several of the Derby and Oaks horses gallop Wednesday morning from a terrace in the grandstand. It is really an awe- inspiring scene, the panorama of the oval, the infield, the backstretch almost overpowering the senses, with the races just days away and the possibilities limitless. Saw the Japanese horse, Crown Pride, work, finishing off a final quarter so quickly that even the veteran clockers were dazzled.

 Did a quick tour of the suites where the track views are perfect and money required to get there for the races slightly beyond our budget.

 Wandered the stable area where we bumped into many of the Derby and Oaks trainers. This was the short tour, a prelude to Thursday when the area would be more crowded and the tension would be increasing, the Derby just two days away.

 Breakfast, of course, at the Waffle House

Tried to make sense of the Friday and Saturday cards that afternoon. (They made sense to some, but not, as we found out over those two days, to Dani or me). Dinner that night at Molly Malones on the eclectic Bardstown Road.

I got a text the next morning at 6:35 a.m. Before I could wonder why somebody was texting me in the middle of the night, I read the text. Dani was waiting by the car. I was there in a flash, quick enough to get us to the barn area before the Derby and Oaks horses hit the track at 7:30.

That was a glorious scene, with the rail packed, everybody craning to get a glimpse of the horses, hoping to see something that would give them a hint as to what may be about to happen.

The most fascinating part of the week for me was seeing it through a first timer’s eyes. Every experience was new and magical.

After a more extensive barn tour, we headed back to change hotels. Derby Week hotels go from reasonable early in the week to unreasonable/insane Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

No matter. We made a clean switch. I was able to use Marriott points for my room. Dani’s room was unreasonable, but not insane. That is reserved for the rooms near the track and downtown. We were not close to either, but close enough to get where we wanted to go.

I had received a text from an old Baltimore friend, also making his first Derby appearance, that he had tickets for us in “The Mansion’’ for what they call “Thurby.’’

The Mansion is at the very top of the grandstand, overlooking the finish line, with the Twin Spires well below and off to the side. It was the site of the press box from 2005 until 2012 until management realized they were giving away seats that they could sell for huge money. So, beginning in 2013, the press area was moved to the ground floor and the swells inhabited “The Mansion’’ on Oaks and Derby Days, for prices, I am told, in excess of five figures.

 But we got to pretend for a day and enjoyed the ambience, the company and the great view. Went to the paddock and trackside to watch Scott Lake run a 2-year-old. The horse did about as well as we did at the betting windows over the weekend.

 Said goodbye to “The Mansion’’ and headed for Lou Vino, a restaurant where we going to meet old friend Trish Bowman, once an information staple on LGR when she wasn’t working for trainer Kate Demasi or going to college, now in her first month as a steward at Horseshoe Indianapolis, about 90 minutes way. It was one of those nights you don’t want to end, lots of stories, solutions to racing issues that we would love to see implemented, the best food of the week.

 Slept in on Friday morning, getting ready for Oaks Day. On the way to the track, Dani found out Ethereal Road had been scratched from the Derby, opening a stall for a horse I had not even bothered to look at and frankly had never heard of. I looked at the past performances of Rich Strike for exactly five seconds and said “no chance.’’

Got to the track early afternoon, watched the races from a section in the old grandstand (not far from the media area) and cashed no tickets.

Was thrilled to see D. Wayne Lukas win the Oaks with Secret Oath, exactly 40 years after he won his first Oaks. Has to be the oldest (86) trainer to win a Grade I. Congratulated Wayne and said “see you at Parx in September.’’

Dinner with the DRF guys, Jay Privman, Mike Welsch and Dave Grening at Impellizzeri’s, the wonderful Pizza joint on Bardstown Road. You will not find three shaper people in racing and we soaked up as much knowledge as we could.

My best friend in the media business, Dana O’Neil, who arrived in town Friday afternoon, was staying in the same hotel complex and offered to ride us to the track Saturday where she had a stable area parking pass. We cruised into Churchill late morning, wandered through one tunnel, passed through the infield and then hit the second tunnel to the frontside. And our Derby Day began.

Saw some races from the grandstand seats. Dani went to the paddock and hung out with the owners of the wonderful Pennsylvania bred filly Just One Time before she ran in the $750,000 Derby City Distaff. I was up in the Jockey Club Suites talking to some high rollers who had flown in for the day from a Mississippi casino. Just One Time finished third, beaten by what I thought was a dead rail as much as the other horses.

Time, which usually seems to stand still, on Derby Day, was flying by, just like the entire week. We saw the great Jackie’s Warrior, winner of the Gallant Bob last September at Parx, crush the field in the Churchill Downs Stakes.

 All the Derby bets were in (I liked Epicenter, Dani liked Mo Donegal) and suddenly, it was time. Philly-area native Kevin Kerstein, Publicity Manager at Churchill Downs, had invited us to watch the Derby from the Turf Course, near the winner’s circle that is used just once all year, for the Derby winner. First, we stopped where the horses step off the track after the walkover and head down the tunnel to the paddock. It was something I had never seen. Chaos would not do it justice, but somehow humans and horses all got through and we were off to the grass.

 The view from the turf course is quite different. I had never been out there either. You look back at the massive grandstand, buildings rising far above the Twin Spires, people everywhere you can see, the horses finally emerging, the post parade right in front  of us, the minutes ticking down.

And then they were off, flying by us, the fastest first quarter mile in Derby history potentially setting it up for a late runner in the last quarter mile. When they went out of view, we watched the race on the big screen and then, peering down the stretch, picked up the field a few hundred yards from the finish, Epicenter in front, Zandon trying to run him down, a perfectly sensible result. Then, 100 yards from the finish line, a horse nearest the rail flashed by us and also blew by the frontrunners. Was that really No. 21, Rich Strike? And did Rich Strike just win the Derby at 80-1? It was and he did.

The second longest price in a race run 148 times had just won the second race of his career. Owner Rick Dawson has barely won any races, much less the Derby. Trainer Eric Reed had won a single graded stakes. Jockey Sonny Leon who won 20 races at Parx in 2017 and 2018, had never won a graded stakes, but he had given Rich Strike a brilliant ride, weaving his way through traffic on the far turn and then coming from nowhere at the quarter pole to in front at the wire. Before Rich Strike, Leon’s best earning horse was Forewarned for Parx-based owner-trainer Uriah St. Lewis, the horse having won the Ohio Endurance the last two years at Mahoning Valley where Leon was leading rider at the recently concluded meet.

Horse racing is endlessly fascinating because you can’t script it.  When Rich Strike ran against Epicenter the day after Christmas in New Orleans, he finished fifth, 14 lengths behind Epicenter who won that race and became the 4-1 Derby favorite a bit over 4 months later.  There was nothing apparent that anything was going to change in the Derby. In fact, nothing changed for Epicenter. The colt ran like he had been running all year. Rich Strike just happened to run the race of his life on the day that mattered most and we had seen something that we would never forget, something that resonated well beyond the insular world of horse racing.

This was a story everybody could relate to, a horse claimed from his second race for $30,000, a horse put on the backwoods Derby Trail, 24th on the points list when Derby Week began, got a spot at the very last minute and then wins. Seriously.  That can’t happen, but it did.

We headed for the Derby Museum and the after party, highlighted by the wonderful movie “The Greatest Race’’ which never gets old no matter how many times you have seen it and had to be especially meaningful for a horse lover like Dani who saw it for the first time.

Bleary-eyed, we finally headed for the infield tunnels in the late night darkness, debris scattered everywhere, bottles of beer and liquor lining the tunnel walls. It was surreal, but revealing, a day like no other in America ending with a walk that felt we had entered a netherworld.

One final stop at Drake’s near the hotel for food and conversation, each of us trying very hard to remember the name of the Derby winner, falling more than succeeding, wondering how it all happened and then just thankful that we were there to see it.

We practically closed the place and then a few hours later, we were heading back to the airport, out of Kentucky into Ohio where we saw Belterra Park from the sky, the Ohio River flowing by on its way to Louisville.

It is 108 miles from Belterra Park to Churchill Downs, but on the first Saturday of May in 2022, there was just a mile and a quarter between nowhere and everywhere.

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