From the SPORTS PHILOSOPHER Mental Archive: Taking a Look Back at a New Yorkish Kind of Kentucky Derby….

May 2, 2010
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      In addition to being damned entertaining, Sports can be used as a kind of bookmark.   Each watershed sporting event can act as a virtual placeholder in the huge, ungainly memory book of your life.

      That’s what I use Sports for, sometimes.   Do you?   Well you should.   For one thing, it works.   For another, it’ll make a big fat warm satisfying memory right in the middle of your belly.

      Take the Kentucky Derby.


A brave Alysheba holds off a drunken Bet Twice to win the 1987 Kentucky Derby.


      I decided to watch Saturday’s Kentucky Derby (won by Super Saver) with my girlfriend, the fair Roxanne.   Being LaVerne Online Nation’s most electrifying jet-set couple, Rox and I had always intended to use Derby Weekend as sort of a glad respite, a much-needed breather midway between our whirlwind mini-vacations to Las Vegas and Palm Springs.  (Here’s last month’s madcap Vegas adventure: ).   Rest is always good.   Truth is, I am feelin’ kinda tired lately.   Anyway, she loves it when we watch TV and I teach her about Sports.   I’ll always associate the 2010 ‘Run For The Roses’ with her. 

 Which got me to thinking.

      Kentucky Derbies have always been placeholders for the various epochs of my life.   Take 1973.   It was the euphoric epoch of high school, senior year, a time in a young man’s life that virtually guarantees a perfect marriage of unlimited mobility and limitless dreams and possibilities with none of the accompanying angst and responsibilities.   In other words, when you’re in high school you think anything is possible.   And fittingly, the great Secretariat romped home in the ’73 Kentucky Derby by two-and-a-half lengths, winning with something left in the tank, bringing a brutish, bully’s arrogance to his Derby triumph that no horse has duplicated before or since.   His final time of 1 minute 59 and two-fifths seconds is still the Derby record.   The big red colt would go on to win the Preakness and then become the 1st Triple Crown winner in 25 years, when he conquered the Belmont Stakes by an astounding, otherworldly, goosebump-producing 31 lengths.   The stuff of gods and legends.   Y’see?   Anything was possible.    

      Three years later I was off at college.   Berkeley.   My cousin Bobby Flink (then a San Francisco commodities broker, now a Chicago chiropractor) invited me across the Bay to take in a Cubs/Giants game with a bunch of his broker buddies, at San Francisco’s old Candlestick Park.   Apparently these brokers were all from Chicago and had recently been transferred to their San Francisco office, so they would all be rooting for the Cubs.   I didn’t mind that so much; but unfortunately, the game happened to fall right smack on Derby Day 1976, so yes, I deeply regretted that I would miss the race.   But I loved the Giants and had never been to Candlestick and I hadn’t seen Bob in years so I couldn’t very well say no.   So I hopped on the subway in Oakland, barreled right under the Bay itself, resurfaced somewhere around Market Street in San Francisco, Bob picked me up, and we headed down the peninsula to the ballpark in a caravan with about 35 of his fellow transplanted Chicagoans.

      Imagine my joy when I discovered that one of the brokers had brought a portable TV to the ballpark.

      What a glorious toy.   I’d never seen a portable TV before.   The screen was only 5 inches wide!   Bitchin’.   Soon I had commandeered the damn thing, and long about the 5th inning I’ve got it balanced on my lap, I’m turned around facing the three-dozen brokers crowded together in our little section of the grandstand, and suddenly I have gone from the prospect of totally missing the 1976 Kentucky Derby to ANNOUNCING it: “That’s Honest Pleasure moving up on the outside, Bold Forbes digs deep at the rail, and now they’re head-and-head….Bold Forbes and Honest Pleasure, head-and-head, nose-and-nose….they’re inside the sixteenth pole and Bold Forbes sticks his neck in front….” I exclaim.   By now I’m fairly screaming at these expatriate kings of finance.   One of the brokers loses his composure, leaps up and in a Chicago accent screams back, “I’ve got a hundred bucks on Bold Forbes!”   I draw the stretch call out a few extra seconds just to be mean, but finally reveal to this crazed investor that Bold Forbes has prevailed by a length.   At more than three-to-one, I think the guy made about three hundred and fifty bucks.  

      Meanwhile, on the field, San Francisco Giants pitcher Jim Barr hit Cubs third baseman Bill Madlock—the league’s reigning batting champion— with a pitch, Madlock charged the mound (his nickname was “Mad Dog”), and instantly a full scale riot broke out.    Unlike most baseball fights, this one featured some awfully crisp punches.   It was bloody.   But order was eventually restored, and the Giants won the game.   Two Cubs were kicked out, including Madlock, who was fined $500.   His reward was to be traded the following winter (to the Giants, ironically), despite winning another batting title in 1976.   Barr, despite throwing the pitch that started it all, was not ejected.   I loved it.   My thanks go out to both Bill Madlock and Bold Forbes for making a great memory.   I mean a thrilling Kentucky Derby and a Giants victory at the same time?   In my world, this is the very definition of a perfect afternoon.

      By the way, cousin Bob didn’t care squat that Bold Forbes won the Kentucky Derby.   All he cared about was that it was unfair that two Cubs were thrown out of the game but no Giants were tossed after the riot, and that that’s why the Cubs had lost.   You may recall from my column of two weeks ago —  —that all the Chicago Flinks suffer from this regrettable obsession with their Cubs….

      (Ironically, 28 years later, I was back in San Francisco and again attending a Giants game on Derby Day.   Not in Candlestick, but rather at the Giants’ new stadium, Pac Bell Park (or SBC Park, or AT&T Park, or whatever telephonesque name they are giving it nowadays).   Anyway, it was 2004, and my 7-year-old son and I watched Smarty Jones destroy his Derby inferiors on the huge scoreboard in center field.   TV technology sure has come a long way since the days of those 5-inch portables.)

      In 1979 I was a young man living in Pasadena, working some silly dead-end job and writing short-stories in the evenings.   One balmy Friday night in early May, one of my best friends stopped by my Pasadena apartment to shanghai me for some drinks at a local pub.   His name was and is Pete Bennett, who now happens to publish the very newspaper you are this moment, through me, perusing.   As we drank and prayed that a good-looking girl or two might lower their standards enough to allow their venturing into the seedy establishment we were patronizing, we began to discuss that year’s Kentucky Derby, which was scheduled to be run the very next afternoon.   Pete liked the heavy favorite, Spectacular Bid, a steel-gray son of Bold Bidder out of a broodmare called Spectacular (to give you a perfect example of how racehorses are named).    I fancied Flying Paster, winner of both the Santa Anita and Hollywood Derbies.   “The Bid will roll,” said Pete.   “The ‘Paster is ready for him,” I rejoined.   I believe we might have even placed a small wager on the outcome….its hard to remember.   I do remember when Pete drove me home he elected to immortalize his prediction by speeding recklessly down Colorado Boulevard at two a.m., yelling out his open window to all of sleeping Pasadena, “The Bid!  The Bid!  The Bid!   He was sure an excitable fellow back then.

      ‘Turns out ol’ Pete was right.   The Bid laughed his way to a comically easy win in the Derby, leaving the ‘Paster and eight other inferior nags in his wake.   Come to think of it, that was literally one of the few successful horseracing bets friend Pete ever made….  

      But when it comes to taking one of the epochs of my life, and using the Kentucky Derby to elevate and distill it from “epoch” to “epic”, that honor is reserved for 1987.

      I was working as a corporate headhunter at the time, making piles of money, and during the 80s I took a trip to New York pretty much every year.   But in 1987 I took my sister Marji with me.   Paid all her expenses.   That’s what big brothers are for, I told her.   I felt bad that she had never been to New York.   Well, that’s not quite true; in 1961 my father took the whole family to the Big Apple, but Marji was only two at the time, young enough that my mother kept track of her by simply dragging her all around midtown Manhattan and the Bronx Zoo attached to a harness and leash.   That’s no way to see New York….

      Anyway, we blew into town on the 1st weekend in May, Derby Weekend, and stayed at the home of my good friend Jimmy Owen who lived in Manhattan at the time.

      I was happy to take Sis to New York.   Good karma.   But sister or not, there was no way I was going to pass up my one chance to bet on and then watch the Kentucky Derby in a gross Manhattan dive bar.

      Which is exactly what I did.   On our final day in New York I dragged my sister (no leash, no harness) into an Off-Track Betting parlor, pulled $300 dollars out of my wallet, and bet it all to show (which means first, second, or third) on a then-unknown colt called Alysheba.   He was a rank outsider, a longshot.   Eight-to-one.

      Like most women, Marji hates horse racing.   She has a hard time abiding grown men trying to figure out—and then actually risking hard-earned wages on—which farm animal can outrun another.   That’s fine.   But she wasn’t about to object to this fool’s errand.   After all, I was the Galahad who just introduced her to Gotham, right?   We wandered into a wonderfully stereotypical Manhattan dive bar (meaning lots of cigarette smoke, gross, depressed-looking customers appearing perfectly prepared to kill themselves, and rude, short-tempered bartenders), pulled up a couple of barstools, ordered up a couple of beers, peered through the smoke at the TV as they loaded the gate, drank a toast to Alysheba and his fine, Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron, and by the time they rang the bell and sprung the latch I was pretty darned sure the strapping bay son of Alydar would do well.   Maybe not win, but at least hit the board.   And thus win me my bet.

      So around the far turn a very quick colt called Bet Twice takes the lead.   Almost immediately Alysheba takes up the chase.   When they straighten away into the stretch they are running one-two.   Alysheba is gaining.   But I’m exhorting McCarron to do better: “Come on, Chris, lash that lazy bleep, whip that mother-bleeping bleep’s ass you bleeping s.o.b.!, that sort of thing.   One problem.   Bet Twice was a great horse, but he was also, to put it charitably, erratic.   He couldn’t run a straight line.   And now he’s weaving his way down the stretch like a two a.m. drunk snaking his way through a parking lot in search of an invisible car.   Sure enough he weaves right in front of Alysheba, and Alysheba, horror of horrors, steps on him.   I’m not kidding.   He clips Bet Twice’s back heels, stumbles to his knees, his nose almost touching the ground, with McCarron now thrown up onto his mount’s neck and hanging on for—literally—dear life.   My heart freezes dead in my chest.   “Oh my bleeping god!” I wail.   And sister Marji, who, as stated, is not the most astute observer of racing this country has produced, screams out, “Which one is Alysheba?   Where is he???”   What a boob.

      What I’m thinking at this point is that this kind of crap is always happening to me.

      Anyway, somehow, some way, Alysheba keeps his four feet, re-rallies, avoids Bet Twice a second time when the latter weaves in front of him yet again, and forges boldly ahead ‘close-home’ to win by about three-quarters of a length.   It was beyond inspiring.   Many racing experts rate the brave son of Alydar’s performance as the most courageous ever put forth in a major stakes race.

      And me?   After recovering my bodily functions, and after cursing myself for not betting the nag to win, I compose myself sufficiently enough to calculate my show-bet profit to be $780 bucks, which means the State of New York owes me $1080.   Not bad.   We stroll casually next door to the OTB to cash my ticket….

      …..Except that all the OTB pari-mutuel machines at that particular OTB are broken.   So you can’t cash your ticket here, they say; sorry.   They can’t explain it.

      But I don’t have time to argue because we have a shuttle flight to catch to Washington in an hour, where our brother Jeff is picking us up for the second half of our vacation.   So we take a cab to another OTB.   The machines are broken there too.   They can’t explain it, but I don’t have time to argue because now we’re starting to get dangerously close to missing our flight.   So we take a cab to another OTB.   The machines are broken there too.   They can’t explain it, but I don’t have time to argue because now I realize I’m down to almost no cash for the rest of my trip, and we still need to make that shuttle flight in less than an hour.   So we go to another OTB store.   Then another.   Another.

      What I’m thinking at this point is that this kind of crap is always happening to me.

      You get the idea.   All the pari-mutuel machines in Manhattan are broken.   Nobody in New York will cash a wining ticket on this day.   It’s an electronic Armageddon, a by-god, city-wide OTB meltdown.   Unbelievable.   I myself am going to have to wait till I’m all the way back home in order to mail my ticket in and get paid.   Which I don’t mind that much, except that it left me cash poor and nearly flat broke for the rest of my trip.   

      So when brother Jeff picks us up at Washington-Dulles Airport, I have about thirty bucks in my pocket.   I know, I know; you’re thinking that I bet my entire vacation wad on a stupid horse race and it serves me right.   But I doubt if my sister will ever forget her first trip to New York without a leash, and that the entire adventure centered around Alysheba’s Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride of a Kentucky Derby.   I know I won’t forget.   If I had more time and energy I’d tell you all about the second half of our now-epic trip, particularly the drive from the airport down to Jeff’s farm in northern Virginia.   Suffice to say it centered around the three of us rifling through my suitcase and using my dirty underwear to gently wipe rainwater off of a bunch of cheap antiques and brass collectibles our enterprising brother had stacked and piled in the back of his truck.   (Don’t ask.)

      I suppose the moral of the story could be one of two possibilities.   Perhaps it’s what I was telling you before, that a single sporting event—like the Kentucky Derby—can permanently galvanize and immortalize a special memory, indelibly time-stamping it for all time to thus make it timeless.    

      Or perhaps it’s that it pays to wear underwear.   You never know when it will come in handy.

Brad Eastland

Brad Eastland


The Sports Philosopher!

Brad Eastland is an author, historian, film buff, undiscovered fictioneer, and globetrotting horse racing aficionado— in no particular order.   Brad’s other recent columns for LaVerneOnline can be found in Sports under ‘The Sports Philosopher’ and also in Viewpoint under ‘Brad Eastland’s View’.    Brad has also written 4 novels and over 20 short-stories.    Samples of his best fiction work can be discovered within the links below :











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