Tomorrow is Derby Day. I won’t be in the infield at Churchill Downs sporting an outsized hat, and I won’t swill any mint juleps from sterling cups, but I’ll watch the Derby and scream at the television as I always do, as if I had big money on the horses, which I never do.
I grew up in Kentucky, where horseracing occupies considerable importance, consuming people’s time, evaporating their money, and dominating their conversation. Both my parents and grandparents loved going to the track, and my father took me many times when I was a child. A day at the races was an important outing, requiring a hat and white gloves. Most of the lessons I learned from my father were sorry ones, but he did teach me two very important things: how to recite the Greek alphabet and how to read a racing form.
I know that animal rights activists condemn what they see as the cruelty of horseracing, but I confess that I enjoy the spectacle and the thrill of it all, the jockeys’ vivid silks, the announcer’s staccato call, the thundering hooves, and the crowd roaring with excitement and groaning in despair.
Long after I left Kentucky and had only distant and infrequent contact with my father, his rare phone calls were generally to announce that there was an important stakes or claiming race at either Hollywood Park or Santa Anita. Although he still lived in Kentucky, he followed horseracing all over the country, and knew which horses were racing where, which jockey was riding them, and whether their trainers’ streak of luck had been good or bad.
Was I going?, he’d ask. “No,” I’d say each time. “I don’t go to the track much.” In fact I didn’t go at all, and hadn’t gone to the races since I’d been with him as a little girl.
Then my friends Ann, Kathy, and I decided to go to Del Mar one weekend on a lark. This time I made the call, something I almost never did. “Dad, I’m going to Del Mar tomorrow. Do you want me to bet on anything for you?” He didn’t have any specific horses or jockeys in mind for that day in Del Mar, he told me. “But give me 7 and 2 in the daily double.” He was 72 at the time, so that was probably a reflexively hopeful bet.
Astonishingly, it turned out to be a lucky one. The number 7 horse won the first race. When the horses bolted out of the starting gate in the second race, my heart started pounding. By some miracle, the number 2 horse streaked across the finish line first. Because my surrogate bet for my father had been a stingy and cautious one, I think the winnings were a modest $42 or so, but I screamed as if I were about to cash in on millions.
I went straight to a phone booth—remember those?—and called my father, breathless and practically shouting, “You won!” I’ll send you your winnings, I told him, and he was quiet for a moment. “You keep it,” he said.
I wish I could remember the names of those two horses, 7 and 2 in the first and second races that day, but I don’t. As I search my memory I picture my father frowning in disapproval—he’d never let a detail like that slip. I don’t remember what I did with the $42, either, but now I wish I’d made some kind of important purchase with that money, something I’d still have and remember. My father wasn’t able to give me much in his turbulent, troubled life, but the vividness of that day’s surge of excitement at winning the daily double has endured.