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The 1994 Kentucky Derby was one of the most dramatic Derbies ever, featuring an upset victory by Go for Gin over the heavy favorite Holy Bull, who would go on to become three-year-old champion for that year. But on the first Saturday in May, Holy Bull came in a disappointing 12th out of 14 starters.
I know the outcome because I read about it later. I didn’t get a chance to see the race myself because I was with some friends at Churchill Downs that day.
At the time I never thought I would ever say this in a history column, but America Online was the Facebook of the ‘90s, and in some ways even better, because in those first days of broadband service and the miracle that Windows 3.1 seemed to offer, all of us online seemed more like hardy pioneers than we do today. I had struck up a friendship with a woman named Kathy, in Wisconsin, who for reasons known but to her and God had developed a fascination with Thoroughbred racing. We chatted about the sport, and she told me that she’d always wanted to go to the Derby.
By 1994, I had become a partner in the large law firm with whom I began my practice. Among the other perks of being a partner in a big law firm, you get an expense allowance with which to entertain clients. The firm’s senior partner, Paul Sullivan, who had briefly claimed to have been ruined by his association with Sunday Silence, the great Arthur Hancock III’s 1989 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, had assigned me to work with an up and coming young bank executive named John St. Clair, in John’s battle to retake control over a bank in Eastern Kentucky, a story you could write a book, not a column, about.
But that was a few years earlier, and now John was firmly entrenched as president of his bank, and I was fully entrenched as a partner in the law firm. Couple that with my expense account, and Kathy’s desire to see a Derby, and we had created the perfect storm. I called John up: “Hey, John, let’s go to the Kentucky Derby!”
I arranged to buy a Derby box from a friendly ticket scalper (“The Governor gets his tickets from this guy,” I was assured), and we were on our way. Buying the tickets required a certain amount of skullduggery (“I’ll be in a blue Chevy with the lights on. Walk up slowly.”), and a greater amount of cash, but it turned out to be the easiest part of the event.
We had our Derby group set: John, his wife Kathy, my friend Kathy, and her friend Polly. That only adds up to five, which left an open spot in a box for six, which was fine by me. A couple of days before the Derby, though, John called. He had an important customer, owner of a radio station, who also wanted to go. Could we get an extra ticket? I told John I had it covered.
Which was fine until the next phone call. “Kelly,” the radio station owner, “met a woman skiing in Aspen, and wonders if we can fit her in, too. If we can’t get them in the box, can we get them separate tickets?”
At this point John’s voice dropped, and his delivery almost mimicked that of Tom Gentry, with his emphasis on the last words in the sentence: “This is a BAD DEAL. He promised her he’d take her TO THE DERBY.” If he’d been Paul, he’d have proclaimed himself ruined at this point.
I thought about it, and it didn’t take long to cook up the plan. In those days, they used hospital-type ID bracelets to designate which ticket holders could go to what part of Churchill Downs. “John, I’ve got an idea. We’ll have six bracelets. We’ll go in, I’ll put my bracelet on, and go to our box. No one will check my bracelet while we’re there, and I’ll cut it off, and the girlfriend can scotch tape it back together and use it. We’ll buy her a grandstand ticket to get her in the door.”
John was thrilled with this solution. We made our plans: Kelly and his girlfriend would meet John at his house, and John would drive his motor home (the only vehicle he had big enough for all of us) to Lexington, to pick up Kathy, Polly, and me, and thence to Louisville. In retrospect, we should have made a movie.
The movie Fargo had just come out, and Kathy and Polly wanted to prove that they didn’t have accents that sounded like those in the movie, and buoyed by having watched a man put through a wood chipper, we stopped in the Liquor Barn to pick up provisions for the big day. We ran into Tom Gentry, who was doing the same thing. Tom couldn’t decide if he were more impressed with the Derby box I’d been able to get, or the fact that I was taking two good looking women to the Derby (he didn’t buy the “friends” part, or that they were both happily married). After unsuccessfully trying to trade me out of my box, and my companions, he departed with a pallet of provisions.
Although Paul Sullivan wasn’t involved in it, Arthur Hancock, III, whose Stone Farm had produced Sunday Silence, had a horse in this Derby, too. His Strode’s Creek, named after a creek running by Stone Farm in Bourbon County, wasn’t given much hope in the race, just as Sunday Silence hadn’t been given much support before his Derby victory, either.
I took Kathy and Polly out to Stone Farm on the off chance we’d get in to see Arthur, who was entertaining visiting dignitaries in his office. An Irish groom who apparently didn’t know me let us in. Arthur was in his element, surrounded by friends and well-wishers, with a Derby horse in contention, despite what the handicappers said.
Mr. Hancock looked at me. “Pathfinder,” he said. This was his nickname for me. I had told Kathy about Arthur’s penchant for nicknaming people, and she was mildly disappointed that he didn’t bestow one on her. We looked outside the office window, and saw a yearling rolling on its back in a mudhole. “Uh huh,” Arthur said. “Let a horse be a horse!”
We chatted about Strode’s Creek, which Arthur deemed a “sure winner,” about which he turned out to be only two lengths wrong, and told us he was excited about the horse business all over again. “Let’s go out and buy some broodmares!” he suggested. Not being in the market for broodmares, we left, satisfied with a bit of wisdom and enough offhand comments to pass on as insider knowledge.
All the talk that spring had been about Holy Bull, another super horse. He had run brilliantly as a two year old, and had won the Hutcheson Stakes, the Florida Derby, and the Blue Grass Stakes as a three year old. Going into the Derby, he was the heavy favorite.
Sunday Silence had plowed his way through a sloppy track to gut out his Derby victory in 1989 the hard way. The stage seemed set for a repeat performance by Strode’s Creek, who also liked the mud.
“The rains came,” Maryjean Wall and Christy McIntyre began their Lexington Herald Leader story on the race. “They flooded Churchill Downs and drenched much of the crowd of 130,594, the 12th largest in Kentucky Derby history… But most of all the rain deluged the racecourse, giving the Derby its first sloppy track since 1948.”
Derby morning rolled around, rainy and blustery, but the three of us were ready to meet John in a mall parking lot; we wanted somewhere big enough for the motor home to turn around. John had called earlier, to tell us they’d gotten off an hour late. “I’ll explain it when we GET THERE,” John said.
The motor home rolled up, looking like a minor rock star ought to emerge from its door, and for a moment I thought one had. He was wearing jeans, cowboy boots, a tuxedo shirt (with bow tie), and a vest which had multiple representations of an Indian chief ready to throw a spear. A fringed Western jacket and cowboy hat completed the formality. I suppose I looked equally alien to him in my Madras plaid sportcoat. He emerged with a young brunette, clearly trying not to look rumpled.
“I’m Kelly,” he told me, and thanked me for getting him and Maria, his new friend, in. Maria seemed nice enough to me, though apparently had caused some consternation that morning. John got me aside. “Bob, we were waiting for them, and they were an hour late, and you all waiting here,” I could feel the tension building, “and they drive up in that BMW, and roar up to a stop, and Kelly jumps out, and she’s sitting there waiting for someone to open her car door. If she’s going to hang out with us, she’s going to have to learn TO OPEN A DAMN CAR DOOR!”
Some liquid refreshment for the ride calmed everyone down, and as we approached Churchill Downs, John at the wheel and Kelly and me exchanging lines from Johnny Cash songs. When the traffic slowed to a crawl, Kelly hung out the open door, calmly directing traffic to allow us to get through. No one thought to question someone looking like an Indian chief.
You’ve never lived ‘til you’ve tried to find a parking place for a motor home at the Derby. We ended up at a church a few blocks away that was running a shuttle service to the front gates using golf carts. I’m not sure the screaming we heard was from the crowd inside, or from Kathy and me sitting on a cooler holding on for dear life in the back of a golf cart.
We had a good time, though the crowds got tiring by the end of the day, swelling as the Derby itself approached. None of us were doing any good at the window, other than John’s wife, Kathy, who either had a secret betting system, or was picking them by the colors of the jockey silks.
The funnest parts for me were just before and after the Derby. The playing of My Old Kentucky Home is an emotional point for any Kentuckian, and somehow being in the midst of 130,000 other people didn’t spoil it. The Derby itself was largely invisible to me, because of the crowd; therefore, as I’ve said, I must rely on press reports. What emerged from the slight blur of colors I saw between people was a win by Go for Gin over Strode’s Creek on a track that may have been more than sloppy. Mr. Hancock missed another Derby victory by only two lengths, which some wag claimed at the time he could have made better time swimming than running.
After the Derby is run, and the victor announced, and the tv cameras shift to the winner’s circle, the crowd thins out as quickly as it built up before the race. But they run one more race. I don’t remember the race or the horses in it, only that the crowd thinned out enough that we walked down to the rail, and for one last race we were back in our element, railbirds at Keeneland, close enough to the track to feel the hoofbeats as they went by.
After the race, we ended up in a club in Louisville featuring a band called the Velcro Pygmies (I’m not making this up), who were pretty good, and we danced the night away, literally. By the time we got the motor home back to Lexington, the sun was coming up on the horizon. We had gotten the full benefit of our Derby Day, and night.
And you wonder why I love horse racing.
Holy Bull, who came in 12th out of 14 starters, was laid off to rest, missing the Preakness and the Belmont, but when he came back in the Metropolitan Handicap, he came back with a vengeance, winning his next six races, among them the Travers Stakes and Woodward Stakes. He was named 3-year-old champion for 1994.
Roughly the same crew repeated the performance the following year, but after I abandoned the cocoon of a law firm and an expense account, we didn’t go back. Kathy and I now talk on Facebook, rather than on AOL. She has suffered some health problems over the years, but is doing pretty well right now. John, I’m sad to say, is no longer with us, having passed away far too young. He was among the best bankers I’ve ever known, and a great friend of mine. I miss him, and — forget another Derby — would love to have one more lunch with him.
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying, and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a life long interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Prof. Miller’s role as Legal Editor on ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. He writes, posts, and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.
Photo from Kentucky Horse Park