Derby Weekend: Tears and Roses - By Evan Hammonds

You can count a few moist eyes from the locals during the post parade for the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) when the song of “My Old Kentucky Home” is played. For me, and several of my childhood friends, our eyes will be moist the entire weekend, starting early on Oaks day.

The reason is this will mark the first Derby weekend we will have to endure without our good friend John Mahan. It figures to be a long one.

Churchill Downs will miss John, too. If the Oaks day on-track handle is down this year at Churchill Downs, it’s not due to the economy; it’s due to the lack of one of their better customers.

Racing enthusiast, handicapper extraordinaire, and a Thoroughbred owner, Derby weekend was better than Christmas for John.

Starting in the early 1980s and coming every spring like the tulips to the brick walkway to Gate 10, John and a car/van/wagon load of people would travel from Lexington to Louisville for a full day of fun and frolic Oaks day under the Twin Spires, then keep the party going all the next day (and well into the night) at John’s Derby party.

Churchill Downs puts on a pretty good show. The Mahan party made for a cold exacta.

The origins of John’s hosting skills began in 1980, where John attended the Derby and fancied Genuine Risk. Perhaps there was a bit too much celebration, because he wound up spending the evening in the Shelby County lockup.

Have the Derby come to John? An idea was born.

Along the way, I recall one party where a whole cooked pig was the centerpiece; several renewals where there wasn’t enough action so it carried over to the Red Mile harness track for their night program; and the year when John put all of his faith in a non-winner of one “other than” in the form of Alysheba.

In 1992, after punching tickets out most of Oaks day on A.P. Indy to win the Derby, John was in a mild lather realizing he had no action on the race when the horse was scratched Derby morning.

The parties moved up in company once John met, and later married, the lovely Diana Fister. She brought a certain touch of class to the annual celebration.

Soon after he was wed, John became ill. He never let it slow him down…much. He still traveled to Churchill Downs on Oaks day; it’s just that the trips became a bit shorter. The crew would arrive early and stay for a few races and then head back to Lexington, catching the last few races at the simulcast at Keeneland.

The longest Derby weekend came in 2003, when John—and a multitude of friends--was handed a bonus day. Beyond the usual Oaks and Derby revelry, a trip up I-75 to River Downs outside Cincinnati was in order Sunday. Starry Mark, a horse part-owned by John and trained by John Cotton, won at the allowance level, paying $11.60.

Is there ever a bad trip to the winner’s circle?

With aging as mellow as a bottle of Woodford Reserve, the party evolved. The early days of carting in 12 packs were replaced with pushing strollers and toting diaper bags. It definitely became more “family friendly” over the years.

John’s wife, Diana, and his two children, have a rosy outlook. This year, instead of a full-blown party, they’ll host an open house on Derby day. There are too many friends that have never been anywhere else on the First Saturday in May. They don’t know where else to go.

John lost his battle with leukemia at the Markey Cancer Center in Lexington two days after Christmas. In the waning days and hours of 2009 he was laid to rest with his wife, children, and friends each plucking a rose from the oversized bouquet on display.

I’ll be thinking about those roses Saturday afternoon when I see this year’s hero draped with the winning blanket. I think John would have had the winner.


Leave a Comment:

Mathilda Young

I have tears in my eyes reading this and have thought of John so much this week.  Thanks for putting this in writing.  I think there are so many of us that miss him and especially this week. I'm thankful that Diana is letting us gather again this Derby as a group.

28 Apr 2010 9:10 PM
Sondra Whaley

A beautiful piece - Thank you--

28 Apr 2010 10:25 PM

He was obviously a dear friend. It is always a painful reminder when occasions come around of those who are no longer with us. I would like to mention that we are celebrating Ky. Oaks day this year without James Jones, a beloved and well known blacksmith in Lexington who passed all too soon. The irony? From a small band of broodmares, James Jones is the breeder or co-breeder of no less than TWO starters in the Oaks. I can only assume that he will be watching from somewhere on Friday...maybe he and John will be both cheering them on.

29 Apr 2010 10:31 AM

You make me wish I'd known him - THAT is good writing, and a fitting tribute to your friend.  Thanks.

29 Apr 2010 12:17 PM
Karen Parido

Evan your words say it all, John would be so proud!

29 Apr 2010 4:52 PM

We'll toast  John, James and all those great contenders in all the races. Great writing.

29 Apr 2010 5:39 PM

It seems the Derby evokes this kind of memories for so many of us as we remember old friends and beloved treasures who were a part of this unique race. I have never yet made it all the way through My Old Kentucky Home on Derby Day without weeping. The event has its own magic - and that magic just might be part of what keeps this wonderful sport going, no matter what. Happy Derby Day to everyone, in this world or the next. Thanks for reminding us of this special aspect of the day.

29 Apr 2010 9:44 PM

wonderful story, I too have reason for tears to moisten my eyes on Derby Day. On April 28th my father passed away suddenly after being home from the hospital one night. He had cancer surgery the previous Friday. Eventhough our familiy is grieving I know he would not want me to miss this day.

30 Apr 2010 7:36 AM

Also, I do like Stately Victor like you do.

30 Apr 2010 7:37 AM
Margaret C

What a wonderful tribute to one of the best lost recently. I hope he will be looking down on all of us with many other greats lost too soon. We will miss this year's party due to a filly running tomorrow at Churchill, but we will be back next year.

30 Apr 2010 8:05 AM
Evan Hammonds

The 'holidays' hit us like milestones--they evoke a lot of emotions within us of the good days, and great people we've known, in our lives.

I want to thank everyone for the kind words here and on Facebook.

30 Apr 2010 12:14 PM
Bill Mahan

Thank you Evan for saying so much about a good, good person in so few words. I am John's oldest brother, 17+ years older in fact.  In 1980 we were in our own separate worlds and John never said anything to me about the lockup in Shelby County. An experience he had I never knew about.

John loved racing and the thoroghbred industry and in the sport of kings where all are gentlemen he was, in my book, both a king and a gentleman.\

Unfortunately mother nature is offering us rain on Derby Day, but rest assured all the moisture won't be from the clouds.

Thanks again!

30 Apr 2010 12:25 PM
Rick Seelye

You have to believe that on this day, Johnny has his form, scribbled with the losers and marked with his well researched knowledge of those forever runners.

With the finest of Brown liquid, our Friend John should be toasted at the sound of “And their in the gate” this afternoon on the first Saturday of May.

I will raise mine.

01 May 2010 2:23 PM

Your piece reminds me that racing is as much about the people you meet, and the relationships you foster, as it is about horses. Sorry about your loss but I hope you can find some comfort in the wonderful memories you have of your friend.

02 May 2010 9:47 AM
Graddy Johnson

We raised a glass on Derby Day for our dear friend John.  I have to think he was heavy on to Calvin Borel and Super Saver last Saturday!  Thanks, Evan, for such an eloquent tribute.  My memories of his Derby Party are etched upon my mind, however fuzzy they became.  Cheers!

08 May 2010 10:32 AM

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