XIX. KENTUCKY DERBY 123 In the Spring of 1997, ten months removed from graduate school at Berkeley, I was back at Price Waterhouse, working with Intel Corporation on a big project that they called Job96. Intel was the worldâ€™s dominant manufacturer of silicon microprocessor chips, widely regarded as one of the most respected companies, and was a darling of Wall Street due to the robust performance of its stock. Working on such a project should have made me as happy as any new MBA could be. But I was miserable. I had embarked on two years of study at Berkeley with the intention to switch directions in my career after graduation. I loved working at Price Waterhouse and serving our prized clients, but I was not happy in my pre-MBA work group, known as the Geneva group. Geneva evolved from the system implemented by the Wyoming project teams from 1990-93 into a generalized architecture for accounting and reporting that could be implemented not only at state and local governments but for any customer who faced high-volume reporting challenges. In the early-to-mid 1990s disk space was getting cheaper and business systems were growing more sophisticated. Companies were collecting massive amounts of raw data, and needed strong systems to turn that data into informative reports that could educate their employees and drive business decisions. Thatâ€™s how Geneva was introduced to Intel, as a reporting
component of Job96, whose glitzier and far more glamorous component was SAP, an enterprise-wide integrated business application. I was the team lead for Geneva at Intel, tasked with developing 125 interfaces to move data from SAP to a reporting platform. The files would have to be built during rolling four-hour windows at the end of each geography’s business day. In a proclamation that I still find truly absurd, Intel’s management team tied the success of their entire Job96 project to the success of those 125 reporting interfaces! The project was a pressure-cooker, and I was stuck with the same people, processes, and technology that I had spent two years and about $100,000 trying to escape. All I could do was grind my teeth, make my weekly trips from San Francisco to Sacramento, and try to finish the Intel project as quickly as I could. In the end, the project team was successful, and I finished the Intel project in May 1997. (After Intel, my career took a favorable turn, and I was sent to Philadelphia to do some intense SAP research and development work. I have been closely involved with SAP functionality ever since that R&D tour.) To reward myself after the grueling Intel project, I arranged a trip to the 123rd Kentucky Derby, to be run the first Saturday in May. I booked a red-eye flight to Cincinnati. Uncle Anthony met me at the airport, and we drove to Louisville for the races. On the drive down Anthony recalled his Army days, when he “went overseas” by crossing the Ohio River. The tickets I secured that year provided for two days of racing, Friday’s Kentucky Oaks (the Derby’s companion race for three-year old fillies) and Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. We arrived in Louisville by 11AM on Friday, well before the first race. We were lucky to find parking at a catholic school just a few blocks from Churchill Downs. The citizens of Louisville are quite proud of their home and the Derby. As Anthony and I walked to the track, we encountered a clean city and friendly people. The city cleanup reminded me of the way Canton is revitalized each year for the Pro Football Hall of Fame festival. We made our way through the turnstiles at Churchill Downs and soon we were seated in section 11 of the Infield Bleachers, near the 1/8th pole, directly facing the famous twin spires of the clubhouse. While I would have preferred clubhouse seats, I was quite happy just to be at the Derby. From the Infield Bleachers we had a great view of the racing action and we were in a prime spot to take pictures with the spires as our backdrop! Along with the Super Bowl, the World Series, and the Indianapolis 500, the Kentucky Derby competes for a place in the country’s heart as the Greatest American sports event. On historical grounds the Derby stands alone. First run in 1875, there were twenty-eight Derbies before the first World Series, and thirty-six before the first Indy 500. The Kentucky Derby is not the oldest of the American triple crown races (it is predated by the Belmont Stakes) or even the richest race in American racing (many Breeders’ Cup events now have higher purses) but the Kentucky Derby is far and away the one race in America which casual fans pay attention to; it is the one race in America which horse breeders, owners, trainers and jockeys want to win the most; it is the one race in America which gives a winning horse and jockey immortality.
Parallels can be drawn between horse racing and college football. The Breeders’ Cup may be the bowl series, but the Derby is the archrival game, USC vs. Notre Dame or Ohio State vs. Michigan. The Derby winner is akin to the Heisman trophy winner, remembered forever, while the runners-up are reduced to footnotes and asterisks. People bet on both sports, of course, and people analyze and overanalyze statistics, numbers, and trends in both sports. In racing as in football, upsets occur sometimes, but more often than not, the biggest, strongest, fastest athlete wins. And oh, what a beautiful athlete the thoroughbred horse is! I first attended races in 1990, with my sister Dianne at Golden Gate Fields near Berkeley. For me it was love at first sight. Sure, the action provided by the gambling and handicapping was a big part of it - the chance to read the Daily Racing Form, review all of the past performances, and pick the winners. But just being at the races is fun in itself. Hearing the bell sound, watching the starting gates open, seeing the blur of silks as the horses run the backstretch, feeling the rumble as the horses pound on the dirt on their way to the finish line. It is intoxicating. As I just hinted, I tend to be an analytical horseplayer. For each race I dig through the Daily Racing Form to find the hidden secret that will lead to my winning ticket. I look for equipment changes, that horse who was spooked by a shadow last time out, but now has put blinkers on. I look for the horse who is dropping in competition, badly beaten in a $30,000 allowance race who is now entered in $18,000 company. I look for the horse in the maiden races who has finished second or third a few times and who desperately seeks their maiden trip to the winners circle. I do the analysis. Uncle Anthony, on the other hand, is a hunch player. He bets based on colors or numbers, or just whatever seems right to him in that race. Friday’s Oaks Day gave us a chance to orient ourselves at Churchill, and prepare for the much larger crowds that would be present on Derby Day. (The Oaks Day attendance was 92,547, while the Derby drew close to 141,981.) We both had some success with Friday’s race card, one or two wins for each of us. For Friday’s feature race, the Kentucky Oaks, Anthony asked me to bet a 4-5 exacta box. A few minutes later, after a vicious downpour of rain, Blushing KD won and Sharp Cat finished second, giving Anthony that exacta to send him home with cash in pocket. My expert analysis led me to pick the #1 horse, Glitter Woman, which might still be out on the track, trying to finish the race! If we thought Oaks Day was fun, it was just a small taste of what Derby Day would be like. We arrived at Churchill Downs early again the next morning. I started out hot, winning the day’s first race, The Riva Ridge, thanks to a longshot horse named Cliffty Falls, and the second race, The Northern Dancer, backing a favorite named Valid Expectations. In between races, Anthony and I walked around the grounds, drank the famous mint juleps, and took many pictures. Given its exotic name, many people are surprised to find that a mint julep is essentially bourbon, ice, and sugar garnished with a mint sprig. For a whisky drinker with a sweet tooth, it is about as tasty a libation as there is. As one walks around the grounds on Derby Day, it is impossible to fail to notice the stratification of society. Every social level is present at Churchill Downs, in fairly distinct sections of the course. Near the finish line is Millionaire’s Row, a section of the clubhouse
reserved for the ultra-rich. The horse owners and trainers, emblazoned with special pins and lanyards to signify their participation, waltz gracefully and anxiously around the paddock before each race. Farther away from the finish line, you find Louisville’s citizens dressed in their finest clothes. Every man wears a jacket and every woman wears a hat. When you walk through the tunnel under the track and enter the infield, you find an entirely different Kentucky Derby. In the infield, college kids drink beer from cans and cups. Strippers perched atop the shoulders of willing carriers offer an eyeful of flesh to the vocal, raucous, wanting masses. Fans in the infield also wear hats, but here you might find a man with a handmade replica of the twin spires, or a woman wearing a hat that is being circled by a horse wearing a blanket of roses. Everywhere you go at the Derby, the mood is festive. During our day at Derby 123, Anthony and I just tried to absorb everything that we saw. We met a lot of nice people, we took a lot of pictures, and we really enjoyed ourselves. I found my third winner in the day’s sixth race, the Humana Distaff. One of the favorites, Capote Bell and jockey John Velazquez, beat everyone to the wire to add to my bankroll. Of course the undercard races are just teasers, and as each race finishes, the excitement builds for the Derby. After Jerry Bailey and Always a Classic won the seventh race, the Grade I Early Times Turf Classic, the undercard was complete and there was about a one hour wait until the 123rd run for the roses. Races normally are staged about thirty minutes apart, but more time is given before the Kentucky Derby to allow for the television buildup, and to allow for the 140,000 spectators to place their final bets. I was determined to not spend our day at the Derby standing in line, so after the fourth race, I placed all of my bets for the rest of the day. Anthony did the same, though I think he might have jumped back in line later to play a hunch or two. The field for Derby 123 contained some stars of American sport, and some relative unknowns. At the number 4 spot was Concerto owned by New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Concerto had won seven of his ten lifetime starts, including five in a row. His last loss came at the hands of his neighbor in post position 5, Captain Bodgit, ridden by Alex Solis. In post six was Silver Charm, with Gary Stevens up. Silver Charm, trained by Bob Baffert, had been beaten by a head by Free House (post twelve, with Kent Desormeaux up) in the Santa Anita Derby. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas kept alive a streak of 17 years with a derby starter, by saddling a lightly-raced sprinter, Deeds Not Words, for the mile-and-aquarter Derby. The betting public didn’t buy Lukas’ ruse, and made Deeds Not Words one of the longest shots on the board. After weeks of anticipation, from start to finish, the 123rd Kentucky Derby lasted two minutes, two and 2/5th seconds. Gary Stevens and Silver Charm held off Alex Solis and Captain Bodgit at the finish line to give trainer Bob Baffert his first Derby win. Kent Desormeaux and Free House finished third. Concerto finished ninth. Deeds Not Words finished last. Baffert, who had trained Cavonnier to a second-place finish in 1996, was the talk of the town. Gary Stevens, who had been elected to the Hall of Fame just three days earlier, got his third Derby win. For me, however, the gracious owners Bob and Beverly Lewis deserve the spotlight for this victory. One of the largest distributors of Anheuser-
Busch products, Bob and Beverly Lewis gave the impression that they were more like me and Uncle Anthony than the guys on Millionaire’s Row. On the Lewises behalf, Baffert had purchased Silver Charm as a two-year old for $85,000. After the Derby, Mr. Lewis joked proudly that his tombstone could now read “Loving Husband, Devoted Father, and Kentucky Derby Winner.” I placed so many bets on the Derby that it would have been nearly impossible for me to not cash a winning ticket after the race. I did pick the winner, and my program shows that I had bet five times more on Silver Charm to win than I had bet on any other horse. I had also placed a number of exacta bets which included the 6-5 winning combination. So the Derby win, along with my three wins on the undercard, made Derby 123 a profitable day for me! But this trip was about more than gambling, it was a celebration of the thoroughbred race horse and a wonderful weekend with my Uncle Anthony. Anthony and I would return to Churchill for three more Kentucky Derbies over the years, but my fondest and most cherished Derby memory is of this, our first trip to Derby 123.
Silver Charm won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes in 1997, but fell short of the American Triple Crown when Chris McCarron and Touch Gold caught him at the wire in the Belmont Stakes. (Hoping to see history made, I was at Belmont Park that day, celebrating my twenty-ninth birthday.) In 1998 Silver Charm won the world’s richest race, the Dubai World Cup. He is retired to stud in Japan, most recently at the Iburi Stallion Station. In 2007 Silver Charm was elected to the US Racing Hall of Fame. Bob Lewis died in 2006. Santa Anita Park renamed a Derby prep stakes race in his honor. His wife Beverly is still active in thoroughbred racing. Bob Baffert has won eight Triple Crown races, seven Breeders’ Cup races and two Dubai World Cups. In 2009 he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. He remains active as a leading trainer of thoroughbreds. Gary Stevens won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes three times each, and the Preakness Stakes twice. He won the Santa Anita Derby nine times, and mounted eight Breeders’ Cup wins. He retired from riding in 2005, with 4,888 wins. His mounts collected over $221 Million in purses. In 1997 he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. He starred in the 2003 movie Seabiscuit where he played the role of jockey George Woolf. He currently works as a jockey’s agent, horse trainer, and television commentator. Alex Solis finished second in the Kentucky Derby three times. Over a twenty-seven year riding career, he has won one Preakness, three Breeders’ Cup races, and one Dubai World Cup. He is still an active rider, and he now works closely with his son Alex, who is a horse owner / bloodstock agent in California.
Race Card with LeRoy Neiman watercolor
Magazine with Derby trophy
With Uncle Anthony at Kentucky Derby 123 121
Bob and Beverly Lewis in the Winners Circle
Finish line picture from Sports Illustrated 122
Chapter 19 of my memoir "25 Seconds" recounts the tale of my first trip to the Kentucky Derby.