The first Saturday in May has always been a red letter day for me and I make sure I carve out a spot to watch the Kentucky Derby in peace. This year’s Derby was no exception and I was rewarded by a masterpiece of a race won by a long shot hardscrabble horse named Mine that Bird, ridden by a hardscrabble jockey from Arkansas named Calvin Borel.
As always, the race produced some excellent writing and this year it was Joe Drape of the NEW YORK TIMES. Writing the overnight story Drape wrote:
“Sometimes this game brings you to tears. Sometimes it feels right to be wrong. And always it is better than O.K. when a man in a black cowboy hat and an almost-handlebar mustache, a Cajun jockey with more horse sense than book sense, and a scrawny $9,500 gelding sends tears streaming down your face.”
That caught it just right for the sentimentalists among us. For me, the Derby has always been more than just a horse race. It’s a memory trip back to good times and long, passionate discussions about horses and good writing.
I got into the newspaper and sports writing business because a friend of mine named Bill Braucher was writing horses at a small newspaper outside Cleveland. He was a fine writer and never better than when he was writing about the racing scene. His stuff had come to the attention of no less an icon than Red Smith, the great TIMES sports columnist, who promised him the racing beat in New York when Joe Nichols passed on or retired.
Well, Joe Nichols hung on forever and finally Bill grew tired of waiting and was offered a job with the MIAMI HERALD covering the Hialeah and Gulfstream tracks, which he did for a number of years. Later he was tapped to cover the Miami Dolphins when Don Shula was named coach. Bill and Shula had been classmates at John Carroll University. When the Dolphins won the NFL championship, Bill wrote a book about it called PROMISES TO KEEP. It was a good read and was written in Bill’s fine narrative hand. He later wrote a book called NO CHEERING IN THE PRESS BOX, which made pretty clear the distinction between objective reporting and being a cheerleader for your hometown interests. That would be a worthwhile read for the television people these days.
Bill’s father had been a sportswriter who had some drinking problems, injured himself and couldn’t travel with the teams. He then wrote for the NEA producing the copy for the cartoon, OUR BOARDING HOUSE, for many years. Bill had his own share of drinking problems, as did most of us who spent too much time in saloons. I was never able to get the racing beat at the CLEVELAND PRESS where I worked as a sportswriter. That job was held by a dapper little guy named Isi Newborn who picked up a measure of national prominence by picking Dark Star over Native Dancer to win the 1953 Derby at huge odds.
Bill died of cancer a couple of years ago and Isi is long gone.
I think of them both at Derby time each year.
Update: Ilsa and I took Harlan and cousin Henry to OTB. We bet 5 horses to win...including the winner!!!!! Net profits: $35, immediately spent on dinner and ice cream. Thanks, Pops, for guiding our picks.