By John Thornton - 1930
This writer could have had early opportunity in life to satisfy any possible thirst for knowledge of the turf world. When a small boy, my home near Brooklyn was a short hike to the old Sheephead Bay and Brighton Beach tracks. In addition, a relative of the family, who owned and operated one of the large stables of the day, was a frequent visitor at our home, during his summer circuit of the Northern season. But the sport was on the downgrade in that section and interest lagged.
It was some years later, while engaged in business in Chicago, that there appeared an odd reminder of bygone days. A jockey, who claimed to be stranded, asked for funds to get to his "next meet at Paducah, Kentucky." It was late Saturday afternoon, and he "must be there for the start on Monday."
A few pertinent questions, as to Paducah and his obvious appearance of overweight, were quickly met with a nominal request; and the volunteered assurance that the loan would be repaid, many times over, by the placing of an equal sum on a race that was "already in," he confided to me, the proceeds of which would be wired to me in Chicago the early part of the following week.
If the racing game had improved any, according to my impression up to then, it was not to be revealed in the light of this experience; as investigation at the sports desk of a Chicago daily showed Paducah to boast only a dirt county fair track, which was idle at the time.
A natural curiosity was born with this incident, however, to determine if there was any part of the land where one could attend and be witness to a real honest-to-goodness horse race.
"Go to Louisville for that," was the advice. "Those people down there love and know horses. They would hardly stop at murder if things did not appear on the level to them."
To those who have never experienced its thrill, or who may appreciate fond recollections, the writer will review his impressions of Churchill Downs at Derby time; still the scene of turfdom in the acme of its most historic, as well as classical setting, and where a horse race is as it should be, if it is to be had at all.
"To go where the crowds go" or to merely mingle where "good fellows get together" may provide the motive for lesser-noted assemblages, even where the fair sex is to be found. But idle curiosity, I was soon to find, was not the lodestone that attracted the women of Kentucky to the Downs on this eventful day.
Chicago, of the larger cities, furnished the biggest representation, so far as noses counted; but one soon realized that this is Kentucky's own heritage, and that it is by its natives that the real color is supplied.
As the day of days approaches, Louisville's hotel lobbies present what is probably an unusual sight to the stranger, but hardly unusual to the old-timers. The jovial old Kentucky Colonel in the broad fedora, accompanied by his refined and still beautiful spouse, is arriving for the "Dahby, suh," and the best lineage of society, to its last members, is in evidence everywhere.
If, perchance, you have come to Louisville on business at this time, you had best forget it and begin at once to look for a place to stay, as the hotels have been booked for accommodations for a year in advance. You will find many people have to sleep in their automobiles, and thousands live in the Pullman cars, which brought them to the Derby.
It used to be fashionable to walk out to the site of the long-anticipated event at Churchill Downs, but a solid phalanx of buses, taxis, automobiles, and tram cars transports the 80,000 race enthusiasts to the noted track now.
As you enter the grounds in the orderly throng, you think you have come upon a beautiful, large park of stately old trees and flowered shrubs, with a rich carpet of green. The grandstand, immaculate in its freshly-painted dress of white, extends almost as far as the eye can reach. Mounted along its sides in reverent memory may be seen the shields of Derby winners, since the earliest days.
People here are busily engaged studying their horses closely. It is almost impossible to approach the paddock for the crowd. You notice on your way the parimutuel cages; where the bets are taken, the tickets issued, and the total amount wagered on each horse recorded in full view of all. Excited groups of Kentuckians are seen ranged along the fence rails. The day that all Kentucky has lived for has arrived!
The extent of my enthusiasm, previously, for the Derby had been limited to a blind mental selection of the winner. This can only be attributed in honest confession to my ignorance of any "methods," other than the hazards of a hunch. In the environment, with which I was now surrounded, I was again merely an interested novice.
But the family hospitality of the South soon demonstrated that it allows none to remain a stranger. The bugle had sounded for the first race, and I was in line to place my bet, when a woman of very pleasing appearance addressed me.
"Would you mind buying a ticket for me, too?" she smilingly asked. "There is such a crowd. Here is the name of my horse."
She handed me the money and a slip of paper with a written name on which she drew from a handful of notes. I performed the mission as a matter, of course, while the little lady awaited in frenzied excitement at the foot of the stairs leading up to the stand.
As she hurriedly thanked me for the stub, she cordially added, "If you are alone, I'd be glad to have you join our party. I see you are a Northerner. That is, if you don't mind a lot of old married folks."
There was something about the invitation that impressed me with its typical tone of Southern friendliness. Of course, I accepted. I had heard of Southern women and their love of the thoroughbred and was anxious to observe how they reacted to the thrill of a horse contest. My afternoon was to be well-rewarded in that respect, after I was introduced around to the party of vivacious women.
The bundle of notations and clippings in my informal hostess' hand, which had first caught my attention, still puzzled me, so I was frank to ask, "If I am not too inquisitive, will you tell me what are all those papers you have in your hand?"
"Oh, that's my dope," she laughed, "We follow the records before the meeting here. We are out every day it is on. Who are you all betting on in the Derby?"
"I have not decided yet. I want to see the horses first," I replied.
"What! You have not picked your horse?" she exclaimed in surprise.
The first race had started, which occasioned the undivided attention of the entire party. I could not repress a smile at their antics as they urged and entreated their beloved choices, as only Kentucky women can.
At the finish, my hostess sank exhausted in her seat. "Wasn't that pretty? We had that one. How did you all make out?" she inquired breathlessly.
"I was just in the money," I alibied. I did not explain that I have never heard from my horse.
"We can have a messenger take care of our bets," she suggested in the spirit of a winner. "Who are you all betting on in this race?" she asked as she busied herself with her dope.
"I kind of like that black horse with the thin legs," I replied, as my eye was attracted to a beautiful, lean mare that the jockey could hardly hold in, as he rode her by the post.
"That's Dark Angel. Beautiful horse. She never ran this distance before. I don't know if she can keep up," my hostess informed me as she scanned her records.
"I'm stuck on that horse's looks. I have a feeling she is sure to win," I enthused in inspired confidence.
"I think I'll change on this race and bet on her, too, if you don't mind," the lady spoke up after deliberation.
What a race that horse ran! I have never seen one like it. The Derby that was to follow, later, was not to be compared with it. Before the start she was unnoticed in the betting. As the horses broke, she leaped as on springs to the rail. With each stride she jumped farther away from the pack. The crowd marveled. At the half, she was lengths ahead of the field and drawing away, still faster.
Although carrying hardly a bet, the applause which followed that leading streak of black was that usually accorded a favorite. Then came that tense moment on all tracks when every horse seems to stand still, the turn before the home stretch.
"She can't last," went the shout. But this was Dark Angel's day. She was to upset all dope and every tradition. Down the stretch she galloped in her lone race. As she drew to the finish, her jockey appeared to turn with a smile of victory, whip raised high over his head.
When the large amount to be paid holders of winning tickets was displayed on the board, amid lusty cheers from the grandstand crowd, it is needless to say I was considerably embarrassed by the effusively expressed admiration for my supposed superior knowledge, by the entire party.
They were very pleased without forcing an explanation, which relieved me immeasurably. I hunched and bluffed throughout the rest of the day, successfully enough to maintain before my sophisticated audience the high reputation I had established at the outset; so much so that, as we parted at the gate, they were very solicitous that I should join their party on the next day.
But hunches or dumb luck cannot come every day, I realized, without painful experiences; so I became satisfied to rest on my laurels, and be content with the thrill of at least once being in the realm of the unchallenged masters of thoroughbred performance.