My First Kentucky Derby

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TwinSpires Staff

April 20th, 2015

This week, we'll be strolling down memory lane to revisit several Kentucky Derbies that hold special personal meaning for us. Our inaugural "team blog" fittingly looks back on our first Derby memories.

James Scully: I remember watching the Kentucky Derby on tv in the late 1970s -- Seattle Slew, Affirmed/Alydar and Spectacular Bid were such huge stars at the time – but I attended for the first time in 1981. My parents took me and I remember asking if I could make two bets, $10 to win on Pleasant Colony (my top choice) and $5 to win on Well Decorated (my first stab at value at 65-1). I couldn’t find Pleasant Colony during the early stages, he was so far back among the 21 horses, but it was easy to pick up the strapping dark bay colt on the far turn as he came rallying boldly into contention and powered his way to the lead by midstretch. I pocketed a $45 return on the 7-2 choice (parents didn’t subtract the $15 investment) and will never forget the thrill of victory.

Kellie Reilly: It was the morning of May 2, 1981. My grandma, newspaper in hand, suggested that I might be interested in watching the Kentucky Derby on television that afternoon -- a logical proposal for a nine-year-old who had already evinced a general interest in horses. Being completely unaware of the prep races or resumes of any of the runners, I had literally no thought of trying to pick the winner, or even imagining to root for one. But as I looked at the horses in the post parade, for some mysterious reason, I formed an attachment to Pleasant Colony. Did I notice his endearingly floppy ears? No. They didn't show up too well that far away on the ancient television set, and I wouldn't have been clever enough to observe their floppiness. Was it a subliminal effect, with a name redolent of early American history? Possibly. Expecting nothing to come of it, I wasn't on the edge of my seat in suspense. That changed when Pleasant Colony charged from far back to take command. Suddenly I cared an awful lot. He wasn't safely home yet, though. Here came Woodchopper, gaining ground fast and late! Where was the finish line? How much longer did Pleasant Colony have to go? Please don't lose now! Relief and joy -- he was a lot closer to the finish than I realized. On to the Preakness! My grandma wouldn't have to tell me when to watch again.


Vance Hanson: My father insists I accompanied him to Canterbury Downs to watch the simulcast of the 1986 Kentucky Derby. Besides picking Groovy, who I thought had a groovy name but, as it turned out, little aptitude beyond seven furlongs, I have no memories of the day.

Things were different in 1987. I had spent the entire winter and spring absorbing as much as I could about the sport (or as much as my 10-year-old brain could process), and watched virtually every major Derby prep. The biggest questions I had going into that Derby: Was the regally-bred Capote, who had beaten many of the major Derby contenders in the Breeders' Cup, really as bad as his runs in the Gotham and Wood Memorial suggested? Was Demons Begone, the hot favorite after his romp in the Arkansas Derby, really that good after being trounced in the Breeders' Cup?

The answers were yes and no. Capote was eased after what trainer D. Wayne Lukas later termed the worst training job of his career, pressing onwards with the obviously out-of-form colt. Demons Begone was pulled up down the backside after a bleeding episode. Neither won another race of significance.

Alysheba, whom I had watched eke out a win he was disqualified from in the Blue Grass nine days before the Derby, hadn't really impressed this newbie beforehand. However, it was hard not to be at the conclusion of the Derby after he avoided two near-catastrophic clipping of heels with Bet Twice in upper stretch to win.

Thus began one of racing's last great rivalries, one which encompassed nine races over two seasons and provided a budding racing fan in Minnesota memories greater and more fondly remembered than anything that occurred at his neighborhood elementary school.


Jennifer Caldwell: The first Kentucky Derby I ever saw was Sunday Silence’s 1989 victory over Easy Goer. In fact, it was the first real horse race I’d ever seen period. For some reason that I can’t remember now, we weren’t going to church that night. Dad was doing yard work outside and Mom was in the kitchen baking for Sunday services, my sisters were in their bedroom listening to the radio, leaving me with complete control over the TV for once. I hung on every word of the reporters – Charlsie Cantey, Jim McKay and Jack Whitaker – as they discussed the horses, the jockeys, the trainers, the owners. Listening to “My Old Kentucky Home” as the horses paraded in front of the stands brought me to tears, though they dried up just in time for the gates to spring open. I cheered as the little black wonder Sunday Silence flew home to the deafening screams of the crowd, doing a little screaming myself. As soon as the trophy was presented and the broadcast was over, I ran into the kitchen to circle the date for the Preakness.


Ed DeRosa: Somehow, it took me 10 years to notice the Kentucky Derby. I remember being at Thistledown as early as four years old, and I have a memory from when I was five of watching harness racing at Northfield Park.

My first memory of betting came a year later when on a family vacation to Oglebay in West Virginia we visited Wheeling Downs for greyhound excitement. I made place bets all night and—after paying my mom back the $4 in seed money she gave me—won enough to buy a Speak N Spell.

My first big-race memory comes three years later recalling watching Sunday Silence and Easy Goer battle it out in the 1989 Preakness Stakes from my grandparents' living room, but somehow I missed both their Derby & the Belmont.

I would not make that mistake the following year, however, as I again set up shop in my grandparents' living room to watch that year's Derby (my grandfather avoided the track on big days).

And like most people, the thing I remember most—and really the only thing I remember from that broadcast—is trainer Carl Nafzger telling Mrs. Frances Genter that she's going to win the Kentucky Derby, and that he loves her.

The racing bug had already bitten me before then. I enjoyed going to the track, I liked telling my family who to bet on my behalf, and I loved visiting with the horses, but nothing compared to the exhilaration of watching that Kentucky Derby unfold, and 25 years later that hasn't changed.