For 39 years, my record was spotless. Perfect. Flawless. Thirty-nine times, the horses reached the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby, and I was there.
First, I set up shop in the infield, like most Derby neophytes. Then the press box, covering for the college newspaper. I actually had tickets one year, back when media hacks could buy them. Then, when the press box became overrun with out-of-town reporters who decided for the first time that the event was worth covering, it was banishment to the auxiliary press box.
Didn’t matter. There were betting windows, a box lunch and a restroom - and I was a few yards from American’s most famous track, there to cover the only race that really matters.
On gorgeous afternoons, through rain – even the occasional snowflake – it was THE place to be on the first Saturday in May.
Yes, the Breeders’ Cup financially is a grander day. Huge purses for the winning horse and his or her connections, all day, for two days – they have races on Friday now as well. One day couldn’t contain all the greatness.
The owners, trainers and jockeys will take those trophies and cash those checks, but they’ll tell you privately (some, publicly) that the race they really, REALLY want to win is the Kentucky Derby.
No matter how many races you’ve won or how much in winnings you’ve banked, it’s all about the Roses. Trainer Billy Gowan, who saddled Ride On Curlin (seventh place), said it happens to him all the time, although it no doubt happens to them all.
What do you do?
“I train horses.”
Have you ever won the Kentucky Derby?
Gowan will have to answer with a negative for at least another year, although he CAN say he trained a Derby horse.
Gowan was one of several people videographer Steve Moss and I spoke to in the days leading up to the big race for TV news pieces, but when 19 colts stepped on to the track at Churchill Downs for the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home,” I was 50 miles away. I missed the race – and not for the first time. For the third time in four years.
My initial streak ended thanks to the short-sighted people at Eastern Kentucky University who, in 2011, decided to stage their commencement exercises on the first Saturday in May, with my son fitted for a maroon cap and gown. Surely SOMEBODY in whatever office makes such decisions had to realize that this was Derby Day, right? I demanded answers.
“Well,” I was told, “next weekend is Mother’s Day weekend.”
PERFECT! What mother wouldn’t want to see her son or daughter snatch up a college diploma? Not a viable option, EKU insisted. So they handed the trainer of Animal Kingdom the roses right about the time an EKU bigwig handed my son his sheepskin – or whatever they use these days.
I made it back in 2012, for the victory by I’ll Have Another. An appropriate name, because my next streak was underway. Maybe 40 straight Derbies this time, which would mean I’d be huffing and puffing my way around the track well into my ‘90s.
But no. The streak ended at one.
In 2013, the UK baseball schedule included, as it always does, games on Derby weekend – every other year at home. Much as I love broadcasting Wildcat baseball, it takes a back seat on the first Saturday in May. Until this time.
The UK TV network is carried on Fox Sports, and our schedule has to fit theirs. Despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of television viewers in the Bluegrass State would be glued to a horse race, Fox needed a baseball broadcast.
So we gave it to them, while Orb finally gave Shug McGaughey his Kentucky Derby.
And now, a new streak is underway – two straight. Two consecutive years that I’ve missed the race. And, like my first whiff, it was because of family. My step-daughter’s wedding trumped the fastest two minutes in sports.
Why get married on Derby Day? The heart wants what the heart wants. And it was a splendid afternoon.
After the ceremony, the wedding guests watched the race on TV. I saw the crowd, the hats, the mob of reporters and photographers. Yes, I wanted to be there. California Chrome was not just the winner, but the best story in the field. Trainer Art Sherman galloped Derby winner Swaps back in 1955, the year I was born. He had returned for the first time since then and left with a big, gold trophy. The owners had invested a total of $10,000 in the breeding of the Derby winner and had turned down $6 million for 51 percent of the colt in the weeks leading up to the race.
But our day was every bit as special, and it went off flawlessly. This time next year, bride and groom will be celebrating their first anniversary.
And I’ll be back at Churchill Downs, working on a new streak. I think.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)