Friday, April 9, 2010

Don't waste your money, son

The occasion of my first visit to Kentucky alluded to in my previous post (Setting the hook, below) was the 1967 Kentucky Derby. I had planned to go to the Derby the previous year, but when my beloved Graustark broke down in the Blue Grass Stakes, that took away my reason for going (as well as, briefly, my reason for living!).

The following spring, though, I boarded a Greyhound in Knoxville and rented a snappy red Corvair when I reached Lexington (yes, Ralph Nader, that Corvair). Since *Ribot was then (and remains now) my ideal racehorse, the first place I visited was Darby Dan Farm. When I pulled up to the stallion barn, the unbeaten Italian was out in his paddock which was surrounded by a six-foot high solid wall of white fence plank. If Ribot could see another stallion he would never stop running the fence. Whether he was still trying to outrun everything else, just as he did on the racecourse, I cannot say.

Ribot was not alone in his paddock. His groom, Floyd (sorry, cannot remember his last name) was sitting in a folding chair near a huge oak in the middle of the field, talking to the horse constantly. Ribot was standing under the tree backed up against the trunk. It took me a while to figure out that the occasional loud "THUNK" I heard was the sound of Ribot lashing out at the tree trunk with a hind leg.

Ribot, of course, was famous for his temperamental quirks, but, contrary to legend was not mean. Bored and capricious, yes, but not mean. When Floyd brought the horse back to his stall, he showed me the hoof marks Ribot had left above the beams at the top of the wall of his stall, perhaps 16 feet up, and the tooth marks where he liked to hang on that beam and chew on it. You can still see that chewed beam in the last stall on the left in the Darby Dan stallion barn, though it's been painted over many times since.

I happened to arrive just before a tour group of folks heading to the Derby in a few days arrived to see the stallions, and Olin Gentry, Darby Dan's legendarily crusty general manager came down from the office to greet the group. When Gentry had finished his spiel and the group was getting back on the bus, I dared to ask the great man's opinion of the chances of Darby Dan's Proud Clarion in the Derby two days hence.

Proud Clarion had a spotty record, nothing close to that of Derby favorite Damascus, but he had finished a closing second in the Blue Grass Stakes the previous week, and I had a powerful hunch that he was going to run big in the Derby. Gentry, who had already bred four Derby winners for E.R. Bradley and one (Chateaugay) for Darby Dan, was not impressed.

"Don't waste your money, son," the old man said, "he's a cheatin' son of a bitch."

Come Derby day, I arrived early, parked the Corvair in the enormous Churchill Downs parking lot, hoping I could find it at the end of the day, and made my way to the infield. This was long before the turf course was built, and long before the chain link fence that keeps infield fans far away from actual horseflesh. I was early enough to find a spot on the rail close to the finish line only a few feet from the track itself.

I had my own binoculars, but I wanted to see the backstretch as well, and, even at 6'3" I wasn't tall enough to see over the crowd satisfactorily, so I bought a small canvas camp stool. This was also well before the days of huge infield TV screens that allow anyone on the grounds to monitor the progress of their favorite horse.

I was a bit more agile at 20 than I am now, so I balanced on the stool and watched Barbs Delight flash to the front out of the gate. I was able to pick out Damascus's polka dot silks settling close to the pace, but Proud Clarion was lost somewhere in the pack.

As the field disappeared around the first turn I carefully got down off the camp stool, pivoted around the opposite direction and climbed back on. As I did so, however, I put my right foot down a little too close to the inside of the wooden support of the stool and felt the canvas start to rip. Determined to stay upright I balanced on the stool as best I could and managed to see that Barbs Delight was still battling for the lead going down the backstretch, with Damascus not far behind, but where the hell was Proud Clarion?

As the horses swept into the home turn that canvas stool split wide open and I crashed to the ground, much to the annoyance and amusement of the folks packed tightly around me. Undaunted, I picked myself up and leaned forward on tiptoe just in time to see the cream and brown silks of Darby Dan sweep past the toiling Damascus, run down Barbs Delight and keep right on going to win the Derby.

That $102.50 to $6 across the board bet remains the biggest longshot I've ever hit.


  1. That was great! I felt as though I had been there myself - and I wished I had.

  2. How is it that horse people are so funny? This is a great piece of writing, John, and a grand insight into the history not written by scribes of the time at DRF, Blood-Horse, or Thoroughbred Record.

  3. Thanks Frank. Lucky for me that was one of the few days Proud Clarion picked to try his best. He was a good horse when he wanted to be, and he liked the mud on a dreary day. Also lucky that Damascus, like Point Given many years later, picked that day to lose his cool and wash out in the paddock. Whiteley's tendency to protect his horses from the public really worked against him that day.

  4. John
    I have thought for years that the 1965 crop of two year olds was pedigree to race horse wise the best and most accomplished group, from the top down, ever to race..
    Graustark being one of them!

  5. It was a great story, thanks John. I moved to Louisville in 1981 and went to my first Derby in 1982, which was also my first day at the races. My first wager was $5 to win on Gato Del Sol. The sport can provide the highest highs and the lowest lows. This past thursday we lost a Tapit filly out of my best mare. A tough game, celebrate the good times.

  6. A very fun read.
    By the way, I linked over to your 1995 essay on unsoundness and it was most enlightening - and depressing.
    The breed seems doomed. I almost feel like I should scrape together some money to buy unfashionable but American bred mares and ship them to Flannigan, a $200 stud fee horse in Nebraska by Relaunch who started 20 some times and was a winner at least. His broodmare sire was the less toxic Fappiono, though his sire in turn was the brilliant heavy Mr. Prospector.
    It will take a few non-commercial visionary unheralded do-gooders to put together a pool of backyard racehorses that could some day rescue the breed from its path to destruction. But in the end money will always triumph, or in this case, destroy.
    I note that your favorite racehorse Ribot was not an improver for soundness, the same for my favorite down the barn, Swaps.
    I now realize why the great ones are retired to the breeding shed after 10 starts and a $4 million bankroll. Their alloted time on the track is about depleted anyway. And the commercial breeders are waiting to make some quick money.

  7. No need to go to Nebraska; just send your better mares to Prized and Slew City Slew. Proven sources of soundness and stamina. It ain't rock science.

    Ann F.

  8. And, thank goodness, you've been ignoring bad advice ever since. Great read, John.

  9. Ribot, one of my favorites; thanks for the recollections!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  10. Great story, John, But some might think the advice from Mr. Gentry was not sound...All of us
    gambling types know how right his statement happened to be...But I "bet" we all want to prove him wrong.
    I'm afraid I, being a common horse "player",I
    would be no match for a person of Olin Gentry's stature...for he will surely go down as being the greatest breeding expert of all time.