Doing Derby Right Since 1978

There’s really nothing like Oaks Day in Louisville. Where else does a major metro school district call off school for a local event?  You know all the reasons — the weather, the hats, the drinks, the out-of-towners, the celebrities, the parties.

On the backside this morning, WDRB’s Sterling Riggs asked a question that made me feel a hundred years old — namely how many of these I’d done. I don’t feel that old, but I did walk three miles home from my first Derby 35 years ago. Ouch.

Here are few observations left in my brain after all those Mint Juleps and multiple trips around the Infield:

Go, at least once, to the backside. Whether your thrill is standing right next to these giant beasts, or seeing racing legends up close (today, Bob Baffert and Gary Stevens), or just absorbing the excitement that comes with being around so many media types and quasi-celebrities, it’s quite the place to be. And it’s free. Where else could you just happen by John Yarmuth and Scott Davenport and Tim Laird doing media interviews?

And do breakfast, at least once, at Wagner’s during Derby Week. The pharmacy on Fourth is crowded, the food is average, but it’s one place that hasn’t changed in decades. And you never know who might pop in.

I come by my interest in the Derby honestly. My dad, Buddy Redding, sold pari-mutuel tickets back when you had to go to a $2 Win window to place a $2 Win bet. I used to wait for him to come home and study his marked-up program. My mom, Dorothy, always held a Derby party at our South End home, until she started working for the Derby caterer, booking waitresses on Millionaires Row.

Mom used to give me a t-shirt every year, so I memorized the names of all the Derby winners from the back of the shirt.

Picking Derby Winners: I’ve been touting this theory that it’s the week of Orb. You have to go back to 1923, 90 years ago, to find a Derby winner with a three-letter name, Zev.  Orb is the first contender I heard about this week, so I went with picking the Horses with the shortest names in the field.

On Wednesday, Said won the first race. Grind won the second. I was on to something. So I thought. Push was scratched. And I had really gotten my hopes up for Siva, Rick Pitino’s Horse, in the 8th. Dead last. So much for the theory,but it’s as good a way to pick Horses as choosing based on jockey colors or selecting gray Horses. I’ll probably try it for Oaks Day.

That kind of system sure beats taking the time to study the form and making more educated guesses. As far as the Derby goes, I’ve had some pretty good luck since my first, when I took Kym, my high school girlfriend, to the infield to bet on Affirmed. I wrote a poem about the experience for my Iroquois High School English teacher, Mrs. Stapp, who admonished me for the line “and beer seemed a bargain, at a dollar a cup.”

I worked as a busboy on Millionaire’s Row in 1979 and 1980, slipping in a bet on Spectacular Bid during a break. I began taking my fraternity brothers to the Infield in 1981, and remember (vaguely) cashing tickets on Pleasant Colony and Gato Del Sol.

In 1984, after a beautiful day, the heavens emptied just after Swale (one-name winner!) crossed the finish line. I’ve never been wetter. There was no shelter back then in the Infield, before it was corporate-ized.

I loved Spend a Buck in 1985, and someone in my group had Ferdinand the next year. My last wild infield experience came when Alysheba made history in 1987. The next year, I found myself in Sunset Beach, North Carolina on Derby Day, one of only two Derbies in which I’ve been more than 10 miles from the track. I was happy, through, because Winning Colors won on one of the most miserable Derby Days, weather-wise, in history.

The other time I was out of town was 1998, when Real Quiet won as I watched in a Hawaii bar early in the morning. I wrote about that one for Business First.

I didn’t make it to the track much in the 1990s, except covering it in 1997 for Business First. I must have been pre-0ccupied with raising sons. But in 1992 I sent a fluke $2 exacta bet on Lil E. Tee, #7, with my neighbor. My then-wife had lucky numbers she wanted to bet, so it was 7-3. Casual Lies finished 2nd, and the ticket paid $854.40, money I’ve been paying back ever since.

In 2004, I was involved in raising some money for a jockey-related charity, and spent most of Derby Day in the jockey’s room, an unglamorous location where we were sewing patches on the pants of jockeys willing to do so, even though the rules weren’t clear on what jockeys were permitted to wear. A couple of our patches made it in the race, but not on Smarty Jones’ jockey.

In the mid-2000s, I was in a group that knew a spot on the outside of the first turn. You could get an Infield ticket and set up over there, right on the outside rail, and see all the connections to the Horses make the walk past on the way to the paddock. My son Luke, then 7, insisted we bet on #10 in 2005. I ignored him, because I’d never heard of Giacomo. Luke still enjoys telling that story. I think it was the next year, when Barbaro won, that a deluge had us sliding into the gully created there. Last year I noticed the ever-enterprising Downs management had paved the area for box seats.

You may have heard those in the in-crowd talking about Derby Week as a marathon. In 2011, when Animal Kingdom won, I tried to do it all. I went to Churchill all day Friday and Saturday, and major, black-tie parties Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I’ll tell you that it’s possible to do all that, but not advisable. Too much Derby is more than enough.

So I’m keeping the schedule at  a manageable level this year, but plan to be over there, near the finish line, when Orb becomes only the second three-letter named Derby winner in history.