Listening to Peyton Manning’s heartfelt farewell speech, it got me thinking about all the things I am going to miss about covering the Kentucky Derby, which I did for Blood-Horse and Daily Racing Form, providing lead coverage, for almost 30 years. There are many things I will look forward to, such as watching the Derby as a fan and not worrying if I have enough preliminary material on the Derby winner and having to run around the backstretch until 10 o’clock at night looking for additional color and having a 3,500-word recap finished by the following afternoon.
But after so many years and so many memories, it’s impossible not to look back at all the wonderful and wacky moments, the dinners with friends, and the new people you get to meet every year. And what a great feeling when that recap is finished and you know you’ve captured the story to the very best of your ability. That’s when I think of Dorothy Parker’s words: “I hate writing, but love having written.”
I look back to the days at DRF when I would arrive in Louisville two weeks before the Derby and provide daily coverage of the workouts, gallops, etc, before TVG and “The Works,” and all the private clocker reports on Twitter. In the beginning, no one watched and reported on the workouts other than the few people in the grandstand connected with the horses and a few local TV camera crews. That was when the Racing Form truly was “The Bible.” My daily reports were the only pipeline to the public regarding works and the general activity at Churchill, and while I enjoyed providing all the information and observations, it came with the pressure of making sure you didn’t miss any of the works, because once they were over there was no way of seeing them again and no one to describe them and comment on them. The public is so much more informed now on the daily activities of the Derby horses, and Twitter has proven to be invaluable with on-the-spot reports as they happen from various sources, unlike my day-old reports in the Form, and in later years online that same afternoon on Bloodhorse.com.
I remember being wiped out by the end of the first week and the Derby still seeming so far off., but then always getting a second wind the following week when all the media arrived from out of town. They were all fresh and eager and ready to go, while I ready to go home.
In following Manning’s speech, I decided to look back and remember all the things I am going to miss about covering the Derby, although it is quite long if you wish to bear with it. This was the one time when the whole world was watching, and this was the week when Thoroughbred racing shined its brightest and had people all over the country talking about the greatest two minutes in sports.
I will miss arriving at Louisville Airport and passing under the magnificent sculpture of Pegasus hanging from the ceiling, signifying my arrival. I will, in some perverted way, miss that 11-hour drive to Louisville years later working for the Blood-Horse. Getting satellite radio in my rented car and listening to the rebroadcast of At the Races with Steve Byk followed by that day’s live broadcast made the first six hours of the drive fly by.
I will miss the one time in 1992 I traveled with my buddy and colleague Ed Fountaine (who wrote for DRF and then the New York Post) and we arrived at the car rental desk at the airport. Maybe it was because it was still two weeks before the Derby, but the woman behind the desk, obviously ignoring Ed’s “Arazi” baseball cap, asked us, “Y’all here for the Turkey Shoot?” I have to admit, no one had ever asked me that before, and I’ve never been asked that since.
I will miss the traditional first night dinner with Joe Hirsch, waiting for him with Ed at the bar at Joe’s favorite Louisville restaurant, Hasenour’s. You never knew who else Joe had invited. I’ll never forget the one time he invited the great Jim McKay of ABC and all the wonderful stories that were told that night. I can still taste those lobster tails in butter and seeing Joe in gastronomic ecstasy inhaling their peach ice cream.
I will miss that first year when Joe asked Ed and I after having dinner the night before the Derby, “Have you boys ever been to Churchill Downs the night before the Derby?” Of course, we hadn’t, so Joe drove us around the track where the annual pre-Derby street festival was taking place, with thousands of people enjoying the Derby version of the San Gennaro festival in Little Italy. Unfortunately, there were so many arrests that night, the festival was discontinued.
I will miss the sound of my alarm clock ringing at 4:30, signifying the beginning of another magical morning on the backstretch, driving to the Downs in the dark through the empty streets, and meandering through the barn area where I would get one of the few parking spots next to the trainer’s stand, right by the gap. My first stop was right to Wayne Lukas’s barn only a hundred yards away, mainly because he was the only Derby trainer there that early.
I will miss my early days when I had carte blanche to write whatever unconventional columns I wanted. I was intrigued by the small houses across the street from the Derby barns on Longfield Avenue. For many decades, some of the greatest horses of all time grazed on the grass along the fence in full view of the occupants across the street. My first year, I thought it would be interesting to interview a few of the people who had lived there for many years to share some of their experiences watching horses like Citation, Whirlaway, and Count Fleet graze while sitting on their porch. I knew I had bit off more than I could chew when the first person I talked to, said, “I ain’t no racehorse person. But I’m fer ‘em, I ain agin ‘em.’ I knew then I was no longer in New Jersey.
I will miss the DRF dinners, where everyone from the Form would get together for dinner. There usually were at least 20 of us and I’m still not sure if it was DRF or Joe who paid for it or a combination of both. One year, Joe, who had a habit falling asleep at the wheel, had totaled his car in Hot Springs, Ark. while covering the Oaklawn races. He was seated at dinner next to the wife of the DRF chart taker, who said to him, “Joe, I’m so sorry to hear about your accident.” Joe quickly replied, as only Joe could, “Yes, it’s a heckuva feeling to wake up with an air bag in your face.”
In some strange way I will miss closing down Vincenzo’s in downtown Louisville, where the food was excellent, but the service abominable, with the tuxedo-clad waiters moving with the speed of a tortoise as we waited forever for our food. By the time Joe ordered dessert they were already putting the chairs on top of the tables. I remember one year sitting at a table next to Billy Joel, who was in town giving a concert.
I will miss the wooden swinging door that separated the main press box from the DRF section. Going through that door was a privilege reserved for DRF employees, and no one dared, especially when Joe and chart caller Cliff Guilliams were around. I’ll never forget the scene every year after the Derby, with reporters crowded together outside the swinging door wanting to know where the Derby chart was.
I will miss, (well, maybe I won’t) Joe turning over his Derby Day society/personality column to me, where he roams the dining areas and Millionaire’s Row Derby morning looking for racing personalities and celebrities to either mention or namedrop or get a few brief comments from. The celebrities I saw or spoke to are too many to mention. But two do stand out. To demonstrate to what depths this country had plummeted, I can’t even describe the scene of people mobbed around the elevator waiting for the arrival of, are you ready for this? Kato Kaelin, who most of you might remember from the O.J. trial. As this 15-minute celebrity walked off the elevator, hounded by photographers and gawkers, I couldn't help but say to him, “This is some country, isn’t it.” He replied, “It sure is.”
And then there was my first meeting with Marylou Whitney. Joe was taking me around showing me where to go and what to do when he spotted Marylou, who like everyone, fawned all over Joe. When Joe told her, “This is Steve Haskin; he’s going to be writing the Saturday column from now on,” Marylou reacted with the same enthusiasm as if Joe had just introduced her to his pet hamster. Those actually are the exact words I used in my column. Don’t get me wrong, I like Marylou and all she stands for and what she’s done for racing, but let’s just say she was less than enthused being introduced to me.
Oh, one more celebrity spotting. I do admit ignominiously that I followed Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson into the men’s room and asked him his impressions of attending the Derby while he was standing there conducting business. Not one of my shining moments as a journalist. Boy, was I out of my element doing this column. Thanks, Joe, for the wonderful assignment. After two years I gave it up, and the editors discontinued it. This column was for Joe and Joe only.
I will miss some of the radio shows Ed and I did the night before the Derby every year, and in perhaps the most unusual radio show I ever did, which was driving down to the river by the Belle of Louisville steamboat and being interviewed on a radio show by none other than Pete Rose. Now that was pretty strange.
Getting back to Lukas, I will miss that unforgettable morning after Grindstone’s win in the Derby. I was determined to beat Lukas to the barn, which I did, getting there around 4 o’clock, but only because he had been detained by well wishers at Dunkin Donuts. When he arrived he was still visibly upset over an article that had appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal, calling him a marketer. It was then in the darkness of the morning that he poured out his guts to me, exposing a side to him I had never seen before.
“What did I ever do to deserve this?” Lukas asked. “The quotes they got were very unkind, and some of the people who were quoted swore to me they never said it. I really had to bite my tongue at the press conference in respect to Mr. Young (Grindstone’s owner William T. Young). I stand out here for four or five hours a day and try to do my job, and they’ve got me as some Barnum and Bailey guy that doesn’t know a thing about a horse. I can’t be somebody I’m not. I’m not supposed to be competent? I’m not supposed to be a good speaker? If a guy wants to put my name on a label of clothing I should say ‘no’ because I’m a horse trainer? The quotes from the other trainers were very damaging and I’m having trouble handling that. I‘m proud of my staff and I’m proud of what we’ve done. That’s what we are; deal with it. If that offends you and think I’m obnoxious, just say, ‘I don’t like that guy’s personality.’ But don’t just keep hammering us all the time.”
I miss some of the great lines from trainers. The morning that Arazi made his first appearance on the racetrack after arriving from France, it seemed as if the entire backstretch had come out to see him, as they lined up along the entire length of the rail. Afterward, I passed by Neil Drysdale’s office. Drysdale had the main American hope, A.P. Indy. He was sitting at his desk, oblivious to Arazimania. “You missed all the excitement,” I said to him. “Oh, I missed it?” he replied with a straight race. “I was too busy doing the crossword puzzle.”
Perhaps my favorite line came from trainer Mike Puype, who watched from the grandstand with the owners, as Old Trieste worked six furlongs in 1:09 flat a week before the 1998 Derby. When Puype left the box and walked by, I asked him what he thought. He answered, “I don’t know whether to laugh or throw up.”
I will never forget that Derby morning when Drysdale, A.P. Indy’s owner Tomonori Tsurumaki, and Drysdale’s wife Inger gathered in the backstretch recreation hall, where Drysdale announced to a small gathering that A.P. Indy had been scratched from the Derby due to a foot bruise. It was a crushing blow, but word had already been circulating that something was wrong with the horse. As Drysdale spoke, Inger tried to hide her tears behind her sunglasses, but the pain became too much to bear. She removed her sunglasses and wept openly. When Tsurumaki went over and embraced her, she buried her face in his shoulder. A short while later after returning to the barn she tried to express her feelings.
“This business is so…it’s cruel,” she said. “As blasé as Neil may seem about the whole thing, you know he’s not. In all the years he’s been training, this is the first time he’s come so close. But I guess it’s part of life. I just wish people had really gotten to know him. I guess we’ll just have to pick up and go on.”
Eight years later, Drysdale, now divorced from Inger, did win his Derby with Fusaichi Pegasus.
I miss the early days of Bob Baffert when he was just getting to be a media star. In 1997, I went to dinner with Baffert and trainer Walter Greenman, who had Pacificbounty for the Derby, and whose large mop of white hair closely resembled Baffert’s. On the way to the restaurant, Baffert had to stop first to get a haircut on Frankfort Ave. You had to see the look on everyone’s face when these two walked in together. For some reason, they had Baffert fill out a card with several questions, one of which was to list you’re your occupation. Baffert wrote, “Porn Star.” The look on his hair stylist’s face when she came out to greet him after reading the card was priceless.
I miss all those dinners with Ed at John E’s, even though it was primarily a steak joint and they had nothing for vegetarians, so I would have the fried scrod every time I ate there. It just became a tradition and we were made to feel at home there, getting to know John and his sister. And speaking of Baffert, there was the night of Silver Charm’s victory when Baffert realized at the Derby Museum party that his family, Mike Pegram, and the Lewis family had no dinner reservations. If you didn’t have dinner reservations on Derby night you might as well have stayed in your hotel. I knew Cliff Guilliams was having dinner at John E’s, so I called him and said to him, “Ask John if he wants the Derby-winning trainer and owner for dinner,” which was the greatest coup for any restaurant. Here was Baffert and the Lewises with 25 people and no place to go for dinner, Cliff came back to the phone and simply said, “Bring ‘em over.” So we all went to John E’s and they set up two large tables in the back, and everyone had a blast. It was loud and boisterous, thanks mainly to the fun-loving Baffert clan, and a good time was had by all. I had the scrod.
It was at that dinner that I was introduced to Mike Pegram’s bosomy blonde girlfriend. The next morning at 10 o’clock, well after training hours, Baffert received a phone call from Pegram. “What?” he exclaimed with a tone of disbelief. He walked away, visibly upset, and continued his conversation in private. Pegram’s girlfriend had given him a present that night at dinner and told him to open it before he left Louisville. But Pegram put it in his flight bag still wrapped and thought nothing of it. When he passed through airport security, he was asked to step to the side. The package was opened and there, neatly packed, was .357-caliber Magnum.
Not only did Pegram have a gun in his possession, he was also carrying a large wad of bills, having cashed in big-time on Silver Charm. Baffert called former Kentucky governor Brereton Jones, who was about to leave for church and said he’d try to make some calls. When Churchill’s ubiquitous director of horsemen’s relations, Julien “Buck” Wheat, drove up in his golf cart, Baffert told him what happened. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it,” Buck said. As most people know by now, he called his friend Captain Steve Thompson of the Louisville Police Department, who immediately went to the airport and straightened everything out. An embarrassed Pegram was so grateful he promised to name a horse after Thompson, which he did, and that horse, Captain Steve, went on to win the Dubai World Cup and other major stakes, retiring with earnings of nearly $6 million.
I miss some of the celebrity horse owners, especially having three in one year in 1994 – Albert Broccoli, producer of the James Bond films, the great songwriter Burt Bacharach, and Motown founder Berry Gordy. In 2003, Steven Spielberg had part interest in Derby starter Atswhatimtalknbout. When he came to the barn one morning, the media was not allowed to approach him. I eased my way around the crowd and slowly walked over to him and had to ask him why one of my favorite movies, “Empire of the Sun,” was not regarded as one of the great movies of all time. His face lit up and he said he couldn’t understand it either, and proceeded to tell me everything about the making of the movie and how they didn’t use any special effects to depict the evacuation of Shanghai. Before I knew it, hordes of media, with notepads and tape recorders, rushed up to join in the interview that they naturally presumed was about his horse. They stood there dumbfounded listening to Spielberg talk only to me about Empire of the Sun.
I miss the old Executive Inn, where Joe stayed for over 30 years and where Ed and I stayed for years. Across the street from the hotel, they held the balloon lighting ceremony in an open field in preparation for the Great Balloon Race the following day. People would gather with their folding chairs and watch from the hotel parking lot. It was sad when they tore the place down.
I miss talking to the old African-American grooms and foremen, who had a lifetime of stories on the backstretch. I remember seeing an old timer who worked for Mack Miller sitting on a chair outside the barn in 1993 and telling me in all his years on the track he had never seen a horse physically change for the better in such a short period of time more than Sea Hero, whose coat shined like copper. The result: $27.80 to win.
And I even miss some of the awkward moments, like when Brad Free of the DRF and I were asked to give a handicapping seminar at a posh black-tie affair in 2004, at which they also conducted a silent auction. When Brad and I got up to speak, everyone was still looking at the silent auction items and paying absolutely no attention to us. We decided to go ahead anyway and began in post position order, talking to an empty room. Brad proceeded to start off by saying that the one-horse, Limehouse, had no shot in the Derby. I then looked down off to the side and saw that there was only one person listening to us, and wouldn’t you know it, he was wearing a Limehouse button and was a member of the Dogwood Stable syndicate that owned the horse. Let’s say he didn’t take too kindly to Brad’s assessment of the horse.
I miss some of the great characters, like Louie Roussel and Ronnie Lamarque, who had come to the Derby in 1988 with Risen Star and were back in 1994 with Kandaly, holding a crawfish boil on the clubhouse turn for all the members of the media. Ronnie had written and recorded a song about Kandaly and had it on a cassette, much to the chagrin of Louie. The deal was that each morning by the barn Ronnie would bring reporters one by one into his car to listen to the song. But each time he did, had to donate $100 to Louie’s favorite charity, The Little Sisters of the Poor.
One of my favorite characters was the cantankerous Warren Stute, trainer of Greeley’s Galaxy and the older brother of trainer Mel Stute. Any member of the press who approached Stute was greeted with the same question. “Did you vote for my brother for the Hall of Fame?” If you were dumb enough to say ‘no’ you would get an earful, and that was all you got.
Yes, I miss them all – the characters, the horses, the crazy moments, the early days when the Twin Spires towered above the grandstand, the camaraderie of the old press box, the breakfasts at the old track kitchen, the gathering of horsemen at Wagner’s, the days when Nick Zito was Louisville’s favorite son after winning two Derbys and becoming a media star before Baffert ascended on the scene, my years at the Candlewood Suites that became a home away from home, those wild and noisy dinners at Porcini, and hanging out at Zena’s Café after the races.
Those days are gone and the Derby is now a memory. The romance may be over, but we’ll always have Louisville.