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.

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