Running for the roses

As I drove past the airport on my way out of Louisville on Sunday morning, the private jets still covered almost all available space in the general aviation area.

The millionaires, it seems, were sleeping in.

My wife and I, however, were on the road back to Arkansas. This was my eighth Kentucky Derby but my first in 23 years.

When Melissa and I were engaged but not yet married in the spring of 1989, we drove west from Washington, D.C., to stay with a group of friends at a Lexington hotel, making the short trip to Louisville for Derby Day.

We were young and adventuresome, sitting on the infield for what turned out to be the second coldest Derby in history. There was sleet that morning, and the temperature never made it out of the 40s as Sunday Silence held off Easy Goer in the Run for the Roses.

Two weeks later, Melissa and I made quick drive from Washington to Baltimore on a much warmer day to watch Sunday Silence and Easy Goer square off in the Preakness Stakes. Despite Sunday Silence’s victory in the Derby, the bettors in Maryland had made Easy Goer, the son of Alydar, the favorite.

In what some racing experts rank among the top 10 thoroughbred races of all time, Sunday Silence won the Preakness by a nose after a duel down the stretch. Pat Day was aboard Easy Goer. Patrick Valenzeula was aboard Sunday Silence. It was a race for the ages as Sunday Silence became the 23rd Derby winner since 1919 to complete a Derby-Preakness double.

Three weeks later, Easy Goer won the Belmont Stakes to deny Sunday Silence the Triple Crown.

I was determined that this Derby trip would be a more civilized experience for Melissa than the one in 1989 had been. Having been appointed a Kentucky Colonel by the governor of Kentucky when I worked for the Delta Regional Authority, we were able to purchase what’s known as the Colonels’ package for Oaks Day on Friday and Derby Day on Saturday. It was my Christmas present to myself.

Along with two grandstand seats outside, we had two seats each day at a table inside the Kentucky Derby Museum, where there was a full buffet and no lines at the windows or the restrooms. If you’ve ever seen the lines outside, you realize how important that is.

As always, Arkansas was well represented on Derby Day.

The winner of the first race on the 13-race card was Atigun, owned by Arkansas’ John Ed Anthony.

Joe and Scott Ford of Little Rock had a horse running later in the day.

And when I began going through The Courier-Journal’s Derby special section Sunday morning, there on the fashion page was Keeley DeSalvo of Hot Springs (owner of the famed Pancake Shop on Central Avenue), resplendent in a yellow outfit and matching hat.

As I’ve written previously on the Southern Fried blog, Arkansas — a state with no NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB teams — is only in the major leagues of professional sports in one area. That sport is thoroughbred racing.

Being a newspaper junkie, I picked up the Thursday edition of The Courier-Journal as soon as we arrived in town. The lead story on the front page concerned the previous day’s post-position draw. There in the second paragraph were the words “Arkansas Derby” since Arkansas Derby winner Bodemeister was the Kentucky Derby favorite.

I flew our state’s colors in a sense, wearing Arkansas Derby ties to the Colonels’ reception on Thursday night, the Oaks on Friday and the Derby on Saturday.

Arkansas native Kane Webb is now the editor of Louisville magazine. We had dinner with Kane and his wife Fran on Friday night at a place called Jack Fry’s on Bardstown Road.

Derby Eve in Louisville is like New Year’s Eve in other cities, so Kane had made the dinner reservations back in January. There was bumper-to-bumper traffic along Bardstown Road. We’re both former newspapermen, and Kane knew Jack Fry’s would be my kind of place. It was established by Jack Fry and his wife Flossie in 1933.

Here’s how the restaurant’s website describes him: “Fry was known as a rambling, gambling kind of guy who loved amateur boxing and the ponies. As a result, Jack Fry’s became a sportsman’s hangout, as evidenced by the numerous historic photographs that fill the walls of the current Jack Fry’s.

“He was also known to conduct his bookmaking and bootlegging affairs discreetly from the back room. He was a much-loved character who often gave a free meal to a needy friend. Jack closed his business in 1972. After 10 years of renting this space as Por Que No, a Mexican restaurant, it was re-established as Jack Fry’s. Susan Seiller bought the restaurant in January 1987, the same year that saw the death of Jack Fry.”

After returning to the hotel from dinner, I was asleep within minutes. The Oaks and the Derby only take about two minutes each, but the days are long.

Oaks Day features a 12-race card with the first race beginning at 10:30 a.m. and the final race going off at about 6:30 p.m.

Derby Day features a 13-race card with a 10:30 a.m. post time for the first race and a 7:50 p.m. post time for the final race.

On Friday, a day when the infield had to be emptied at one point due to afternoon thunderstorms, the second-largest Oaks crowd ever showed up.

On Saturday, it was the largest Derby crowd in history as 165,307 people packed Churchill Downs.

The irony is that the Derby is bigger than ever  — truly among the classic American events — at a time when thoroughbred racing is suffering nationally.

A Courier-Journal editorial put it this way: “We hope, as the Stephen Foster lyrics say, the sun will shine bright on Churchill Downs for the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby. But the forecast for the future of horse racing in Kentucky remains cloudy.

“A bill aimed at allowing expanded gambling in Kentucky — a measure supporters have tied to the health of Kentucky’s signature horse industry — again has died, this year in the Kentucky Senate. The measure would have let voters decide whether the state constitution should be changed to allow expanded gambling.

“Supporters say expanded gambling is essential to make Kentucky’s $4 billion horse business viable with other states that allow gaming, such as casinos, and where proceeds are used to fatten purses and draw more horses to racetracks.”

Oaklawn Park at Hot Springs is one of those tracks that’s actually increasing purses on a regular basis.

The tie between Arkansas racing and Kentucky remains strong.

Providing commentary Saturday on NBC was Hot Springs native Randy Moss.

Guarding the door to the jockeys’ room as a Churchill Downs media relations volunteer was Hot Springs native Greg Fisher. I got to visit with Calvin Borel briefly Friday, telling him we’re proud to have him as a member of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. 

My mother’s oldest brother moved to Louisville soon after the end of World War II to work for Belknap Hardware, a company that no longer exists but at one time was among the largest hardware distributors in the world. Uncle Bill Caskey had a box at Churchill Downs, and I began attending the Derby as a college student.

William Burke Belknap had founded the company in 1840 along the banks of the Ohio River in Louisville. He produced iron products such as horse and mule shoes, nails and spikes. The company was in a brick building at the corner of Third and Main with three employees.

When Belknap Hardware celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1940, there were 37 buildings covering 37 acres. The complex had underground passages and covered bridges. The 1940 company catalog had 3,000 pages with more than 75,000 items. By 1957, the catalog had 90,000 items listed.

I remember visiting that old Belknap complex. It was like something out of Dickens. Belknap went bankrupt in 1986 (my uncle had long since retired, ending his career as one of the company’s top executives) and closed its doors.

Uncle Bill and Aunt Sarah seemed to know everyone who was anyone in Louisville. Though he was a native of Des Arc, my uncle had become a fount of knowledge about the Derby and its traditions.

After college, I covered the Derby for several years as a sportswriter, always staying at my aunt and uncle’s home while bringing other writers along.

In 1982, when I was a young sportwriter at the Arkansas Democrat, Wally Hall and I made the trip to Louisville in my car, staying for almost a week at my aunt and uncle’s place in northeast Louisville.

Others who would make the drive with me in later years included Bob Wisener of The Sentinel-Record at Hot Springs, the late Kim Brazzel of the Arkansas Gazette and Harry King of The Associated Press (now with Stephens Media).

The memories of those trips are rich.

So I’ve watched the Kentucky Derby from the press box, the tunnel where the horses enter the track, the infield, my uncle’s box and now the Colonels’ section of the grandstand.

I’ve been fortunate in my career to have covered the Super Bowl, college bowl games too numerous to mention, the NCAA Tournament in basketball and much more.

The Kentucky Derby remains my favorite sports event.

I can assure you I won’t wait 23 years this time before going back.

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One Response to “Running for the roses”

  1. Jim Brewer says:

    So Rex, you’re a bonafide Kentucky Colonel!? Probably should have kept that one to yourself. You’re gonna be Colonel Nelson from now on!

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