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Talk Derby to Me


Talk Derby to Me

By popular demand . . . .

Nothing I have written in the last six months has generated as much response, site traffic, or “retweets” on Twitter as the piece I wrote last week about my plans to attend the Kentucky Derby.  There are two ways to look at that development: On one hand, I’m not sure what that says about by baseball writing, but on the other hand, it probably bodes well for reader enjoyment of my forthcoming book.  Unlike nearly all of the baseball pieces in the newsletter which are really commentary, the book is a memoir.  It delves into data both in baseball and on Wall Street to be sure, but in tone and structure it’s much more similar to last week’s Derby piece than anything else in the blog or newsletter. 

Last week’s response also demonstrates how badly I mistook the popularity of, if not horse racing, the Kentucky Derby.  To wit: There was more money bet legally in the United States on the Kentucky Derby this year than the Super Bowl.  Additionally, my wife, her hat*, and I were part of a record Derby crowd of 165,307 at Churchill Downs on a beautiful, but hot Saturday afternoon.

*From a comedy standpoint, I completely whiffed on this omission: Caitlin and I should have set up a Twitter account for the hat so it could have live-tweeted during the weekend.  Sample tweets:

o) Wheels up!  Pleased my owner got me my own seat on the plane, albeit a middle one.  o) Forced to sit next to her “friend” who is wearing a hideous red baseball cap.  Where is he going, Brother Jimmy’s?

o)  Aforementioned seatmate finally removed hideous hat.  Wait a minute – if he thinks he’s setting that in my  . . . . . Noooooooo!

My wife and I got caught up in the Derby experience even before we got to Kentucky.  On Wednesday we watched a one-hour show on the NBC Sports Network which broadcast live the selection of post positions for the race.  We picked up jargon, loved the demeanor of El Padrino’s trainer Todd Pletcher, and debated the merits of the #16 post position like veteran horse people.  (Incidentally, when it comes to jargon, if you think I didn’t pester my wife on Saturday to see if she wanted me to reenact the “fastest two minutes in sports” then you don’t know just how juvenile I can be with a couple of mint juleps in me.)

For the trip, we used Cincinnati as our base of operations, as we could fly there direct from San Francisco.  On Saturday morning we woke up and turned on the 7:00 news.  Those of you familiar with Cincinnati need to educate me – is there a rivalry between the states of Ohio and Kentucky?  I ask because the local NBC affiliate – broadcasting the race that afternoon – made zero mention of the Kentucky Derby for the first 35 minutes of the broadcast.  All of the multiple weather reports in that first half-hour focused not on the annual horse race just 100 miles to the south, but on something called the Flying Pig 5k and 10k morning race in downtown Cincinnati.  It was truly baffling; I just wanted to know if it was going to rain that afternoon at the Derby and the meteorologists on this broadcast were debating the merits of a morning mist for the 5k run-walk participants.  Is there some sort of resentment from the north side of the Ohio River?  I love a good border war as much as anyone but if you’re Cincinnati, how superior can you feel?  Not to put too fine a point on it but your airport, the Cincinnati airport, is located in Kentucky.

The Derby itself was like no event I’ve ever been to.  It’s part-fraternity party, part-music festival, part-NASCAR race, and part-Kentucky royalty, red carpet social event.  Paid partly by advertising on El Padrino’s colors/silks, those of us that made up the minority-owned portion of the syndicate had our own suite, forty yards from the finish line on the infield side of the track.  Caitlin and I walked around a great deal during the 10-hour race card (the Derby is the 11th race of 13 on the day) taking in the heat, the mass of humanity in the infield, and the local color, from the Kentucky socialites, to the lifelong horse professionals, to the “Smokers Welcome” viewing tents Marlboro had set up.  Since we were sporting our “I’m with El Padrino” buttons, members of the other horse’s ownership groups chatted with us.  “You’ll come back every year.  It gets in your blood,” we were told by one woman.  I looked at Caitlin and thought, “If anything from the infield gets into my blood, I’m going to be on a penicillin cocktail for the next six months.” 

You know how you always hear stories from people who, right before something amazing happens, insist they had “a feeling” the improbable was about to occur?  The reason those stories stand out in our minds, and those “feelings” seem so incredible is that we never hear the stories about the feelings that don’t pan out.  I’m going to change that by telling you about the unquestioned highlight of the day. 

After the traditional singing of My Old Kentucky Home, prior to the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby, the horses were paraded single file in front of the grandstand on the way to the starting gate.  As El Padrino passed in front of us, from the tented second floor roof of the suite every one of us started chanting “El Pa-Dri-no” (clap, clap  . . . clap-clap-clap).  In the middle of our cheer, the horse’s jockey turned to us, waved, and then shoved a fist into the air.  As he did that, El Padrino started to canter happily on the track.  We went bananas.  The horse reminded me of a base stealer dancing off first base.  “He looks runner-ish!” I screamed and I’m telling you at that moment I was absolutely certain he was going to win the Kentucky Derby.  Given the opportunity, at that instant, I would have taken $1,000 out of my wallet and wagered even more on him to win the race.

Alas, the race itself, for those of us in the El Padrino syndicate, was anti-climactic.  We couldn’t see from our viewing angle, but the horse stumbled out of the gate and passed in the front of us for the first time in last place.  Then it’s nearly two minutes of waiting because, unlike television viewers, most everyone at Churchill Downs can’t see anything that goes on elsewhere on the track.  (In the infield, I don’t believe you ever see anything that resembles a horse all day.)  By the time he had run another mile and passed in front of us again, just short of the finish line, El Padrino was in the middle of the pack and he ultimately finished in 13th place.

From the 19th post position (El Padrino was 16th) I’ll Have Another rode a perfect race – exactly the type of race El Padrino’s trainer probably wanted from our horse.  If there was any chance that El Padrino had that sort of performance in him, once he stumbled it vanished.  It’s been written repeatedly that no one anticipated I’ll Have Another winning but that’s not entirely accurate.  On the plane to Cincinnati, I showed my wife this article ( on the website of Las Vegas-based oddsmaker, Todd Fuhrman, a gentleman I’ve had the pleasure of exchanging some baseball-related tweets with.  The article is fantastic – not just because it nailed the winner – but because of the logic and critical reasoning that led the author to his pick of I’ll Have Another.  Since he eliminated each horse one-by-one, as Caitlin and I read it on the plane, we were genuinely excited to see horse after horse eliminated before finding El Padrino listed as a top-5 finisher.

If I had gone to the race to do anything but back El Padrino, that article would have been worth a lot of money.  (I did place a $10 bet on El Padrino and I’ll Have Another to finish 1-2 in either order.)  But that wasn’t what this trip was about.  Caitlin and I went to Kentucky to see about a horse and ended up at a tremendous party.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that surely won’t be repeated, all due to the peer pressure exerted two summers ago by our great friends in New York City.  Thanks y’all.


Mop Up Duty:

Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball*  (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.

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