Most of the time I enjoy being a retired sportswriter. I spend a lot of time reading, chatting with friends, swimming and playing with our dog and four cats.
But that changes in the first week of May because I traveled to Louisville earlier to cover the Kentucky Derby. Luckily, I can still watch the race on TV while the stations tell their audience what’s happening, but it’s not as exciting as it was for my former clients at United Press International and later the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and other newspapers about it race to report.
Now, after several decades of Derby dreams and memories, I want to share some of them with you.
Clothing was always the first order of the day – what would I wear for Derby Day? This race is special to me and I’m not ashamed to say I bought Derby outfits – usually a suit with matching shoes and of course a Derby hat. I remember one outfit in particular, a white blazer with small and large black dots, a white skirt, a gray hat with a black band that I rocked at a daring angle.
Oddly enough, I never wore any of my Derby ensembles at home, as if they were sprinkled with Derby holy water and too sacred for the monotony of everyday life. Years later, I donated most of these to a local nonprofit that provides business attire to aspiring young women. Let derby dreams feed their own personal dreams!
Once I reached Louisville, I spent the next five or six days interviewing people—jockeys, trainers, owners—getting up for the Derby. I also made sure to watch the horses on the track doing their final derby training sessions.
On race day I took my computer to the press box, checked that it was working properly and went into the jockeys’ dressing room.
Carrying a notebook and a tape recorder, I asked, “Do you have a minute to talk?” Often this wasn’t the case, as derby jockeys usually have duties in the earlier races and are too busy to spend much time with reporters .
After that, I usually walked around the barn area to see if I could pick up any breaking news. Then it was back to the press box to study my notes, see the early races and sometimes even bet a few of them.
Interviews with jockeys on race day might not have revealed as much as I would have liked, but that wasn’t the case with trainers and owners. Most were fairly easygoing and the coaches were particularly generous with their time. Even when the trainers were incredibly busy, they found time to answer questions about the horses in their care. In fact, sneakers are one of my favorite Derby souvenirs.
It’s a photo of three of thoroughbred racing’s most prominent and successful coaches – D. Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert, Nick Zito – in casual clothes and posing. Baffert and Zito signed the photo, although with the best will in the world I can’t remember why Lukas’s signature is missing.
Together these three have won 12 derbies: Baffert, six; Lukas, four, and two for Zito. (Last year Baffert looked like he would pick up his seventh with Medina Spirit, but the horse was disqualified when an illegal drug was found in his blood. Churchill Downs has banned Baffert from working on their tracks this year and next, although the judgments are being appealed in court.)
As dear as this photo is to me, it also brings back painful memories. For example, I remember the untimely death of Chris Antley, who rode Lukas’ Charismatic to the 1999 Derby win. Antley died the following year at the age of 34; The cause was officially determined to be an overdose of several drugs.
I also think of Luke’s unimaginable heartbreak when his son and top assistant, Jeff, suffered a fractured skull and permanent brain damage in December 1993 when he was run over by a stray horse on Santa Anita’s butt. Jeff awoke from the coma several weeks later and was able to return to work on farms in California and Oklahoma. He died in 2016 at the age of 58 from apparent heart problems.
I have another derby photo that evokes pure joy. This shows Linda and Dennis Diaz, owners of the 1985 Derby winner Spend A Buck, surrounded by family, friends and famous broadcasters as they are presented with the Derby trophy. Both owners and winning trainer Cam Gambolati autographed the photo, which Linda kindly presented to me with a beautiful dedication.
I keep these photos in our home office. Every time I look at them I am reminded of the dreams and memories that are the Kentucky Derby.
POHLA SMITH is a former national lawn writer for United Press International. She lives in Pittsburgh.