Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Damnedest Thing I've Ever Seen?

This is the week when I officially go crazy.

This is the week when I spend hours analyzing a handful of horse races, watch the replays of those races repeatedly, and scour horse racing websites for any clue that might help me make a bet on a two-minute race.

This is the week that I dig books and old Racing Forms out of the basement, not only to find patterns in races from past years, but to relive a lot of great memories as well.

This is the week that climaxes with me in a crowded OTB, getting misty-eyed at the playing of the official song of a state where I’ve never lived.

This is the week that I actually like Dan Fogelberg.

This is Kentucky Derby Week.

It means little to most sports fans, and probably less to most racing fans than it does to me. But it was an obsession in my house when I was growing up.

The first Derby I remember watching was 1972, when I was six. I remember my brothers studying the Racing Form and talking about the race, with the name of one horse standing out—Riva Ridge. It just sounded like a winner to me. He was not the best Derby winner ever, though—or even the best from his own stable. That would happen the next year.

The ‘70s were a golden age for the Derby, with three Triple Crown winners and several near misses. The major prep races were telecast on ABC, and I spent all spring waiting for the buildup to the big day—as did everybody else in my house.

Then I got the chance to see three Derbies in person in the 1980s. The Kentucky Derby should be on anybody’s “Bucket List.” I will never forget my first glimpse of Churchill Downs. I’d seen it on TV many times, but that does not do it justice, if only due to the size of the grandstand. My idea of a racetrack was Beulah Park. I was not prepared to see the Twin Spires.

Through the years, through my career in horse racing, as well as my present incarnation outside the sport, everything has stopped for the Derby. My family is scattered across the country, but at around 6 p.m. this Saturday, I will know exactly what they’re doing.

The Derby is not only the peak of the Thoroughbred racing season, but the ultimate handicapping challenge because it is unlike any other race. No other race in North America has a field of up to 20 horses—all separate betting interests for bigger payoffs. No race features 3-year-olds racing farther than they have before. No race is run with a crowd of over 100,000—many of them partying in the infield.

I write this, I have given Saturday’s Derby past performances a quick look. This edition’s field has more question marks than a Spanish phrasebook. It looks like the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.

But I say that every year.

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