Last year was the best Kentucky Derby ever. There wasn’t a big hat or mint julep in sight, except on the television screen of course, where there was plenty of both.
The dearth of juleps and hats can be explained because I watched at my Mom’s house with my two grandchildren, Tatyana and Micah. Mom was so happy to have her family watching a race at her house again. It used to be a much more common occurrence when Dad was alive. Granted, Dad preferred NASCAR when it came to racing, but he loved his horses too and Mom was loving it that we were there and watching a race with her.
In the way that the best family moments can often be as much about who isn’t there as they are about who is, my sister Angela’s presence was also very much with us. She loved the Kentucky Derby more than anyone and as far as I know, she never rode a horse once in her whole life. But she loved a good hat and she loved an excuse to wear one. The first Saturday in May might find her in sweats and sneakers or it might find her in a ballgown, but it always found her in a ridiculous hat, ready and waiting for the Derby to begin. It is one of the days when I miss her the most.
Of course, we had no way of knowing that aside from a great family day, we were about to see history made and a star born right before our eyes. After all, it had been 37 years since a horse had won the Triple Crown and I didn’t even know there was a Grand Slam to win since no horse had ever won it before.
In retrospect, it’s very cool that the kids watched their first Kentucky Derby and saw American Pharoah begin his march to glory in the same house where I watched my first Kentucky Derby in which Secretariat did the same more than 40 years before. But at the time, we didn’t know that was going to happen.
Nonetheless, Micah, at almost 2, got really excited and jumped up and down and screamed whenever the horses were onscreen. Tati is a year-and-a-half older and she stayed pretty cool until the race actually started and then she got wound up too. I remember thinking maybe I might try and find one of those little wicker baby saddles that the toddlers use to foxhunt in England and we could all learn to ride together. It was a great two minutes.
Since the kids enjoyed the horses on television so much, the next week I took them to the Jumping H so they could meet some real horses. Micah was again very excited, but when I picked him up so he could pat Murder, who I was riding at the time, he decided it would be much more fun to stick his hand up Murder’s nostril. Well, Murder is a big horse and he has some big nostrils but he was not in the mood to have his nose picked by a little kid so he gave a big shudder and a bigger snort and Micah got kind of freaked out and well, that’s another life experience I messed up pretty badly.
Now, Micah is afraid of horses and when he starts school if one of the mean kids calls him a horse booger picker, he’s in no real position to deny it and that’s on me.
One way being a grandparent is different from being a parent is that I am aware that I’m scarring the children for life as I am doing it. With their mother, I was blissfully unaware of the parental crimes as they occurred. Maybe by the time these kids have kids, I will be able to see in advance that something is potentially damaging and not do it. Since that is unlikely, at least I’ll probably be too old and frail to do them any real damage.
But as we were watching the Derby last year, that boo-boo was still a week into the future and I was still operating under the delusion that I had learned a few things about horses in the three months I had been riding.
One of the things I did know was that even a well-trained thoroughbred can freak out at so much as a plastic bag blowing in the wind or God forbid, an umbrella opening. So watching an entire herd of barely broke baby thoroughbreds walking to the starting gate through that massive crowd of loud, drunk people jumping and waving and wearing big hats full of blowing feathers and giant brightly colored flowers was hypnotic in its potential for horror.
It was a total recipe for disaster. None of those horses had ever been in a crowd like that before. A total train wreck of epic proportions could have broken out at any moment if even one horse lost his cool. Mass panic would have ensued as each horse tried to escape whatever was eating the freaked out horse beside him. Now that I know that’s how they think, it made the suspense of that walk to the gate almost unbearable, almost better than the actual race.
After mayhem miraculously failed to materialize and the horses were safely behind the starting gate, the grand poobah in charge gave the jockeys their instructions and referred to the horses as “equine athletes.” Of course, she was right but a few months later, that comment would become strangely prophetic considering the brouhaha that broke out when American Pharoah ended his racing career by being nominated for Athlete of the Year.
Tomorrow is Derby Day again and I’m not sure with whom I’ll watch this year. The kids are at the beach with their parents and I don’t know if Mom is free. My straw trilby is at hand and my seersucker jacket is pressed; mint and bourbon have been purchased, so I’m prepared. I will be watching, that much is certain. And as it has become my custom, I shall paraphrase my Jewish friends at Passover.
“Next year at Churchill Downs, friends. Next year at Churchill Downs.”
Reach Bill colvard at 336-415-4699 or on Twitter @BillColvard.