- Derby Week a Flood of Tears
We arrived back in Saratoga Wednesday afternoon after an overnight drive from Chicago, still exhilarated from an incredible Derby week in Louisville. While drained from an emotionally wrenching six days of frenetic and implausable activity and outcomes, we are anxious to relate some of the most memorable moments and images of Derby 129 to you...
SARATOGA -- The days leading up to Saturday's 129th running of the Kentucky Derby are filled with traditions that remain mostly unchanged since Col. Matt Winn transformed it from an important regional spring race for sophomores into the world's most anticipated and watched thoroughbred racing event.
From the contender's sunrise workouts over the mist-shrouded Churchill oval, into nightly bourbon-soaked soirees, through Friday's Oaks and Saturday's post parade to the strains of Stephen Foster, Derby Week produces a pagent of convivial revelry and indelible poignancy.
The week's first tears were shed with the inevitable retirement of Laffit Pincay Jr., racing all-time winningest jockey and the last direct connection to the era of Shoemaker, Hartack and Baeza. Pincay's announcement produced an avalanche of memories of his great accomplishments which included his lone Derby win aboard Swale in 1984, 3 Belmonts (Swale, Conquistador Cielo and Caveat), and 7 Breeders Cup wins including the inaugural Classic on Skywalker (1984).
Pincay had been eager to ride Indian Express in this year's Derby, and in fact had been staying on in the game for a second Derby win and a shot at creating a "Ruthian" total of 10,000 career victories. But the 56-year old Panamanian Hall of Famer goes down in racing history as an immortal who overcame several career and life- threatening injuries to eclipse the Shoe's win mark.
The crush of media attention on the trainers and their charges reached a fever pitch by lunchtime Tuesday when Kafwain and Sir Cherokee suffered injuries after respective workouts. Mike Tomlinson and Tommy Thompson were heart-broken by the break in Sir Cherokee's ankle, denying them a chance to participate in their first Derby. The smashing AK Derby winner had been considered by many to be a playable longshot for Saturday. Bob Baffert, always under the media microscope and happy to self direct the spotlight on himself, was less than gracious when left with Indian Express as his lone Derby hopeful after Kafwain's declaration.
But the best show on a daily basis was Bobby Frankel's weary attitude and dead-panned responses when confronting the quote- thirsty throng. The highlight came during Wednesday afternoon's post draw when Hank Goldberg asked Frankel for a national television audience how Empire Maker was doing and the laconic Brooklynite blankly replied, "He's fine".
Kentucky Oaks Day at Churchill is traditionally reserved for the locals as "Louisville's Day at the Races". The field of 12 outstanding fillies, though missing Composure and Storm Flag Flying, promised a contentious affair. It would in fact produce a result foreshadowing Saturday's stunning outcome that would leave the Bluegrass faithful, to quote Billy Joel, in a "New York State of Mind".
Nick Zito and Marylou Whitney's Bird Town, a forgotten 18-1 overlay, rallied brilliantly 5 wide from the 3/8's marker under Edgar Prado and swept to a 4 length victory over Baffert's revitalized Santa Catarina. The win marked a return to the limelight for the likeable Zito who has suffered repeated setbacks since his heyday in the early 90's. For Saratoga's dowager diva Whitney, the victory could only be likened to a phoenix-esque return after years of frustration in her attempts to restore lustre to late husband Jock Whitney's stable. It was during the post-race ceremony that the magnitude of Bird Town's achievement overwhelmed Zito, who broke down unabashedly while being interviewed. It was that sight that opened the floodgates for this correspondent as well, empathizing with Zito's decade-long attempt to revive glory on the national stage.
Derby Day always passes quickly and a churlish, chilly morning eventually gave way to a glorious, sparkling afternoon in the way that makes one suspect an annual backroom deal between Kentucky and the Almighty. By the time the bugle sounds 10 minutes before post, the tension throughout the creaking Downs reaches a heart-pounding level. When the sound of "My Old Kentucky Home" begins to waft over the 150,000 assembled, the butterflies of months of anticipation flutter furiously. Though I wasn't born in Bluegrass Country and barely know the words to the apparently racist tune, I find it impossible to hold back tears at it's rendering in this setting. As you survey your fellow race fans, it is easy to identify citizens of the Commonwealth who sing along to Foster's ditty with julep-fueled glee.
The emotional tension that was dispersed during the pre-race activities ended up only as a prequel for what was to come. As Brancusi and Peace Rules dueled through increasingly heated fractions, it became apparent that the NY-bred gelding which I had made my Derby choice in February was running precisely the race I had envisioned from him. Poised in fourth, then third on the backstretch, Funny Cide surged to the lead as he and Frankel's game hopefuls straightened for the stretch drive. Though Empire Maker threatened, and Prado kept after the fine son of Jules, I began to celebrate with an eighth of a mile to go. As Jose Santos guided "Little Red" down the lane, my jaw tightened in an attempt to stem the increasing blur, my eyes welling for a second time in 10 minutes and third time in 24 hours.
As Santos pulled the winner up another half mile down the track, the realization came that our selection, who couldn't possibly win the Derby according to so many, for so many different reasons, had in fact done exactly what we thought he would. The satisfaction of the moment is difficult to explain and harder to describe.
It wasn't the money won with across the board and trifecta bets that was so satisfying. It is the emphathetic attachment to the connections as we watch Santos and Barclay Tagg all the time in New York and respect their consistant, underappreciated work. It is from calling and speaking to Dot Knowlton at home in Saratoga one afternoon the week before the Derby in an attempt to reach husband Jack, Sackatoga's managing partner. It is from following this horse since his smashing Maiden breaker at Belmont last fall and sensing something special in him throughout the Derby Trail. It is because Funny Cide doesn't belong to a Prince, or a record magnate, or millionaire.
It is the reason that Thoroughbred Racing remains the greatest of America's sports. Funny Cide's Derby triumph is so satisfying because it confirms what all horseplayers want to believe: That virtually any of us could get involved in the game and be photographed in the Churchill Winner's Circle on the first Saturday in May, our horse draped with a blanket of roses.
I got behind Funny Cide, and Buddy Gil as well, because I knew if a gelding could win the Derby, racing had a chance to grow again and find new fans. I pinned my hopes on him, as racing should, because he has a chance to do what no horse since Kelso or John Henry has done: Keep fans coming back for more and discover the charms and pleasures of afternoons at the racetrack.
Each Derby has its own script, and this one ended much like the upcoming "Seabiscuit" film... With a hero for our times. What can I say... I always cry at happy endings.