A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Constance Alexander: Kentucky Derby evokes memories of Aunt Agnes, the odds-on favorite

Aunt Agnes was my favorite relative. She was out-spoken and creative. She lived on Rittenhouse Square, a lovely neighborhood in the City of Brotherly Love. She told stories about my mother when they were both little girls, and if Mother tried to correct her — or change the subject — Agnes just sailed on, deliberately oblivious.

Aunt Agnes had a bookie. Whenever she and Uncle Pete came to our house in New Jersey for a weekend visit, she spent the train ride from Philadelphia poring over scratch sheets, figuring odds, and reviewing the stats for each jockey. By the time they arrived in Metuchen, she was ready to make the call that secured her bets for the day.

My mother always sighed and rolled her eyes when Agnes asked if she could use the phone. 

Agnes, who was actually my mother’s cousin, had always been a non-conformist, mother said, her voice laced with a combination of envy and disapproval. 

The only child of aging parents, Agnes had been pampered from the day she was born. Lavished with expensive jewelry and buoyed by extravagant praise from her doting mama and papa, she moved with the grace of an ocean liner on the open sea. 

“Agnes was always heavy,” my mother informed us. “And she’s always had a big head.”

Mother was not referring to Agnes’s hat size but her air of confidence. To me, that was a trait to be admired, though I knew my opinion was best kept to myself.

It never occurred to Aunt Agnes that she was a big woman with an overbite and perpetually swollen ankles. Though she had gone prematurely gray in her twenties, which aged her terribly, Mother tsk-tsked, Agnes did not resort to hair dye or other artifices. She was a natural beauty, with a lovely complexion, blue-gray eyes, and patrician carriage.

Agnes’s dapper husband was a head shorter than she. Always deferential, he walked a few paces behind her, like Prince Philip with Queen Elizabeth. Uncle Pete was quick to open doors and gallantly offer her his arm. He even swore he did a Sir Walter Raleigh whenever necessary, and although I never saw him actually pull off that stunt, I could imagine him whipping off his jacket to cover any puddles so his beloved would not get her feet wet. 

“Pete adores her,” my mother remarked, but then she paused and added, “There’s no accounting for taste.”

Once she was ensconced on a chair or sofa, Aunt Agnes was as inert as a continent. The kids clustered around as she held court and told stories. She could entertain any audience and revel in their attention. Although she did not need to work, she occasionally took on freelance assignments for fun, writing copy for ad agencies and editing articles for women’s magazines. To hear her tell it, her life was glamorous and exciting, like the character Auntie Mame.

She regaled us with her adventures at racetracks up and down the east coast – Hialeah, Pimlico, Belmont, Saratoga. She knew jockeys, owners, and trainers, and was invited to celebrity cocktail parties and dinners throughout the racing season. My mother, of course, doubted Agnes’s veracity until the day my father took them all to the track at Monmouth, where they were ceremoniously seated in one of the boxes owned by a millionaire, thanks to Agnes’s connections.

With this weekend’s Derby still fresh in memory, thoughts of Aunt Agnes are inevitable. She died long before I moved to Kentucky, and I do not remember her ever telling tales of Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, but I am sure she called her bookie and placed her bets. She was always determined to pick a winner.

For information on the so-called sport of kings, log onto www.kentuckyderby.com.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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  1. Cathy Clayk says:

    Thank you Connie for one more of your fab stories

  2. Anne says:

    Love your writing!! Always!!

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