Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote, “In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.”
At the risk of butchering Lord Tennyson’s romantic sentiment, I will paraphrase it like so: “In the spring an old lady’s fancy bombastically turns to thoughts of horse racing. It is, after all, Kentucky Derby week. I’ve been crazy about the Derby since I was a mere stripling. But more about those good ol’ days later.
The Kentucky Derby is as much about hats as it is the “fastest two minutes in sports,” as the news pundits put it. I love to watch the pre-race activities to see the hats and the stables where the horses peer out from their stalls. They obviously don’t know or care which of them will wear the roses and will become famous just after those two minutes. Right now, California Chrome is the favorite. But who knows? I carefully study the horses and pick my own favorite.
It’s actually a two-day event for me. The Kentucky Oaks is on Friday just before the third Saturday in May. It’s for fillies only, and it’s almost as exciting as the Derby.
I love hats. Some of the hats I see on ladies strolling through Churchill Downs are intentionally silly and fun, but I’m partial to the truly beautiful hats. Come to think of it, I suppose that’s subjective.
My favorite hats are those auctioned off in that most unique of Derby events, “Hats Off to the Horses: The Road to the Derby.” The hats are sponsored by Maggie Mae Designs and are designed by Sally Faith Steinmann. The woman is a genius. Each hat is inspired by a thoroughbred at Old Friends. It’s a charity event that benefits one of my all-time favorite places to visit: Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm.[See Links Page] in Lexington, Kentucky. I know many of the horses retired there, mostly by reputation. It’s a special thrill for me to reach over the fence and pet one of my many horse heroes.
Another of my heroes, who is very active in the race horse business is Rosie Napravnik, one of the few female jockeys working today. Rosie distinguishes herself every time she races. She is pictured wearing several of the hats in the portfolio of auction hats on the Old Friends web site.
Now, hold on. I didn’t forget. I promised you a good ol’ days story.
My favorite Kentucky Derby winner as well as Triple Crown champion was Citation. He was three – all Derby horses are three — and I was 11 years old. It was 1948, and the Derby was to be on the upcoming Saturday. I was wildly excited about it, so I was horrified when Mother announced that my sister and I were invited to Patricia Murphy’s birthday party on Saturday. When I told her I couldn’t possibly go, she further indicated attendance at the party was mandatory. Saturday came and because Mother was never one to suffer rebellion, I kept my disappointment to myself. I also made secret plans that I dared to hope would work out. The party was indoors, and the house was full of both kids and grownups milling about. Mind you, there was no TV in 1948. I searched the house for a portable radio, but found none.
In a corner of the living room there was a huge floor-model radio. I was happy to discover the Derby’s call to the post time coincided with the time for the opening of presents, which were stacked on the dining room table. I figured I could easily sneak away when no one would notice. Feeling both confident and hesitant, I silently sidled up to the radio, and selected the station on which I knew the race would be broadcast. No one was aware I had left the celebrants.
It was almost time for the Derby when the birthday girl, Patricia, decided the presents should be piled on the coffee table and the overflow on the floor. She would open them while seated on the sofa as everyone watched. That made things a little iffy. Their backs would be turned to me, but I ran the risk of them hearing the radio.
I positioned myself with my back to the radio and a hand behind me grasping the knob. I would wait till there was a loud exclamation about the presents, and then I would turn the knob to a barely discernible volume. Suddenly, everyone decided to sit on the floor, which would leave me standing at the edge of the crowd. Why did it have to be this hard? Didn’t these idiots know it was time for the Derby?
I had to go for broke. I waited for a shout of delirious astonishment over the unbelievable present, then I slid down to the floor, and as I did so, I quickly turned the knob to what I thought would be super low. No one seemed to hear. So far so good! Leaning against the radio, my ear on the speaker, I listened to the race. I held my breath as Citation came from behind to win.
I forgot all about being quiet, about the party, about the crowd, about Mother, about everything. I leaped up and shouted, “He did it! Citation won! I knew he would!”
There was an immediate silence. Not a sound. All eyes were on me. I looked at Mother. She was staring daggers. I sat down and waited for the din to resume, which it did after what seemed like hours.
On the way home Mother delivered a stern lecture about being unfriendly and rude, not to mention my unrelenting determination and sneaky behavior. I was to call Patricia and apologize for my unseemly actions. In addition, I would write a heartfelt note of apology to her mother.
I knew I had it coming, but to this day I consider it a small price to pay to hear Citation win the Derby. People who know about horse racing named him the third best horse of the 20th century. Man ‘o’ War is first and Secretariat second.
But Citation will always be first in my heart. I’ll never forget him.