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Kentucky Derby


Part One, written May 31, 2011

On the morning of May 2, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, Vernon Thomas joined 65,000 other horse racing fans for the 68th running of the Kentucky Derby.

Despite what Elmer Fudd says, I don't think it was a “wousy” experience.  But all I know about my father’s visit to Churchill Downs comes from the Official Program that I found among his papers.

He probably was carrying at least forty bucks in the money clip in his pocket, or the equivalent of more than $500 today.  There were nine races scheduled that Saturday, starting at noon.  According to his notations on the Program, he wagered on all but one of them.

He bought $2 tickets to win for the 1st, 2nd, and 6th races, but none of his horses came in.  He had more confidence in his picks for the 3rd, 4th, and 5th races, so he bought $5 tickets to win, and he won all three!  He cashed his tickets for $11.50, $7.50, and $12.00.

After six events, having wagered $21 and collected $31, he was ten dollars ahead on the day.

The 7th race was the Derby.  If I interpret the pencil marks correctly, my father passed on the popular “wonder horse” ALSAB, the eventual second-place finisher.  Instead, he put most of his money on Greentree Stable’s “entry A,” consisting of DEVIL DIVER, ridden by Eddie Arcaro, and SHUT OUT, ridden by Wayne D. Wright.  He wagered $5 to win and also $5 to place (finish second or better).

He hedged his bets by putting $5 to win on Johnny Longden’s mount, WITH REGARDS.  And, just in case a long shot came in, he bought a $2 ticket to win on the “field” (six lightly regarded horses; FIRST FIDDLE proved the best of this group, finishing fifth).  Total cost:  $17 for the four tickets.

Here’s a link to newsreel coverage of the race.  When it started, one of my father’s horses, WITH REGARDS, took the lead and held it for most of the way, but at the head of the stretch #17 dropped back to finish fourth.  However, another of his horses, SHUT OUT, came on to win!

The time was 2:04 2/5, three seconds off the track record set by WHIRLAWAY the year before.  My father’s $5 win and place tickets paid $14.50 and $8.50 for a total of $23, six dollars more than he had spent.

After the Derby, the program concluded with two claiming races.  He didn’t bet on the 8th, but he splurged on three $2 tickets on the 9th.  When it ended in a dead heat between KAI-HI and BURNING STICK, he collected $12.00 for another six-dollar profit.

He didn’t total up the numbers for the day, but if I’ve interpreted his notations correctly, he wagered $44, collected $66, and left Churchill Downs $22 richer.  Allowing for inflation, in today’s dollars that would be more than $600 wagered, $900 collected, and $300 won.  And he had sung “My Old Kentucky Home” beneath the twin spires. 



Part Two, written May 5, 2007

I watched the Kentucky Derby again today.

I've been watching it on TV almost every year for half a century now.  A high point has always been the entrance of the horses onto the track, when everyone sings the Stephen Foster song "My Old Kentucky Home" — especially because my father was born and raised in Kentucky and counted that song among his favorites.

There were many things to like about NBC-TV's coverage, especially the decision to show the final turn from the vantage point of the blimp instead of the far-off grandstand.  Viewers could easily see eventual winner STREET SENSE surge forward from his spot on the rail to cut in front of heavy traffic and charge to the lead.

But I don't much care for the way the networks present "My Old Kentucky Home."

The music is played, as always, by the University of Louisville Marching Band.  However, you can hardly hear the band anymore because TV, in an effort to give us the experience of being in the grandstand, turns its microphones toward various spectators as they try to sing the words.  The sound turns out to be a muddled mess.

I got an audio tape recorder for Christmas in 1961.  Months later, I was still looking for ways to use it, so I decided to tape the sound from the TV during the CBS telecast of the Derby on May 5, 1962, just 45 years ago today.

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Here's the way the song sounded then.  Notice in particular the trombones climbing into the refrain with three dramatic notes.  You don't hear that nowadays.

And then came the event itself.

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The race was run in a record-setting time.

The post-race ceremonies were much like today, with the governor handing out trophies and everybody congratulating each other on the wonderful weather.  We always do seem to have great weather on the first Saturday in May.

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Chris Schenkel and former jockey Eddie Arcaro hosted the telecast.

Did Chris mention a video-tape rerun of the race?  How is that possible?  The history of sports television tells us that "instant replay" was not invented until a year and a half later, at the 1963 Army-Navy football game.

Well, the historians are talking about instant replay.  The video-tape replay of the Derby was not instant.  It wasn't aired until many minutes after the race, giving the technicians plenty of time to rewind the tape and cue it up.  And video tape itself was not an innovation, having been featured on these telecasts for several years by this time.



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