I live much of my life with a nonstop musical score, sometimes just the one in my mind, but more often actual sounds… so I considered it a very good omen when the first song in the rotation today was Patty Larkin's Letter..."Give me a ticket for an airplane...” I'm heading to Louisville for the 141st annual running of the Kentucky Derby, my favorite annual sporting event.
This will be my 31st time there, and every single time it's been magic. I love being at Churchill Downs, they've always greeted me warmly -- Southern Hospitality at its finest.
Sunrise on the backside. Beautiful. Blissfully peaceful, even with the cacophony of Derby week.
The stunningly powerful thoroughbreds, just babies, but magnificent, the best of their breed -- coats glistening in the early morning air as they breathe hard following the morning gallop. Getting washed, and rubbed down, surrounded by crowds of onlookers all eager for this private glance at the elite 20.
There are a number of sporting traditions that still move me. The crowd at the Melbourne Cricket Ground singing Waltzing Matilda before the Aussie Rules Grand Final, the quiet when the sprinters get into blocks for 100 meters final at the Olympics, match point on centre court at Wimbledon, walking through the Grove before an Ole Miss/LSU game Dixie quietly being played behind heavy Southern drawls and lilting coed laughter -- I've gotten to be there front and center for all of them. But there is nothing like hearing My Old Kentucky Home as the horses enter the track for the greatest two minutes in sports.
When that happens, I go to a different place, the one where I am a young boy hanging out in a pasture with a little red transistor radio listening to the call crackling on the tiny speaker imagining the splendor of the great place. Little did I imagine I'd be standing on the track year after year during the race, comfortable with surroundings I've come to know so well.
Lots of my friends will be in town for the race and it'll be wonderful to see them, especially Dan Dry who took me to my first Derby; Razor Bogdon who will no doubt borrow something from my cases; and the little General, Bill Luster, whose covering his 50th Derby. 50! Wow! From hearing stories, I would have guessed the number to be much higher.
But three won't, and I'm sad about that.
I worked the race maybe 25 times with the legendary Heinz Kluetmeier -- the best there ever was, and my default answer at the track is always the same, WWKD?
Laura Heald has been with me doing a lot of the heavy thinking -- and lifting -- for the past 7 Derbies, but we've been running especially hard this year, and she is sitting this one out. I'll really miss her. We got in from Beirut last night, and we're headed back out right after the Derby so she drew the long straw and gets to enjoy some much deserved beach time before another three intense weeks on the road.
The last absent friend, Tony Leonard. His image of Secretariat as a colt hangs in my office. He was a special guy. We lost him a few years ago, 89 years young. I'll raise a lens to him, and save him a spot on the rail -- as he would have done for me.