Dad and the Derby

May 8 9:30 a.m.

I watched the Kentucky Derby with my neighbors on Saturday but it just wasn’t the same as previous years — there definitely was a lack of excitement on my part. I usually check out various horse racing websites for info about the contenders, dope out the racing form and also watch race replays; however, since losing my father seven months ago, I wasn’t into doing all of that. Dad brought me to my first horse race when I was a little kid and I have many fond memories of our times together at Bay Meadows.

daddelmar
Dad at Del Mar (Navy Days mid-1940s, note Del Mar program on right)

All of the guys my dad knew at the track had nicknames. My dad’s moniker was “the plumber” (his profession) and some of his buddies were: Frenchie (a French guy), Periscope Pete (he used a home-made periscope to peek over the betting windows to see what horses the well-off bettors were wagering on), Nibbly Fingers (he incessantly chewed his finger nails), Hank the Crank (no meaning, it rhymed) and Pistol (he was court martialed due to drinking the water out of his machine gun). There were many more, but I just can’t recall their names right now.

I remember my first big score at the track. My dad and I ran a slalom course through the Bay Meadows parking lot as the first race was minutes away. It was hard to keep up with my dad – my spindly legs were no match for a sprinting, 6’4” man with winning on his mind. I laughed at a license plate I passed which said “Idaho, land of potatoes,” and mentioned it to my dad later but he didn’t seem to hear me as he was intently studying the racing form.

My dad went off to make a bet and I sat down to look at the racing form and program and noticed a horse named “Lovely Idaho.” I looked at the odds board and Lovely Idaho was over 50-1 and I really wanted to bet on her but I couldn’t find my dad anywhere (I was only around 12 and obviously too young to bet). As the minutes ticked away, and no sign of my dad, I became desperate and finally asked an honest looking woman if she’d bet Lovely Idaho for me, which she did. Dad didn’t return to watch the race with me (he was probably watching it with Hank the Crank), so when Lovely Idaho came down the stretch ahead of the pack and won convincingly, I celebrated alone (it was obvious by the lack of celebration that no one else around me had bet on the biggest long shot of the race).

When dad returned, I told him I had given a lady $2 to place a $2 win bet on Lovely Idaho for me and then excitedly showed him my $100+ winning ticket. I didn’t think he was listening when I told him about the license plate earlier that day, but after he congratulated me on my big win, he laughed and said “You bet that horse because of the land of potatoes!” He cashed my ticket, gave me my money and I don’t think I had another winner that day, but it didn’t matter because I was hooked. I’ve loved horse racing (and gambling in general) ever since.

There are so many stories about the race track and I wish I could have my dad here to tell them again as I have forgotten quite a few over the years. I’m sure I will remember more race track stories as time goes on and when I do, I will write about them.

Back to the derby. My lack of research about the contenders in the race didn’t stop me from making a couple of bets because as you’ve most likely surmised, I love to gamble, particularly on the ponies. My husband went to the local race track with a buddy and I gave him $10 to bet $5 on the nose on two horses: Golden Cents and It’s My Lucky Day. Even though I didn’t do my research, I HAD to make a bet — it’s in my blood to gamble and it makes the race much more fun to watch (FYI, neither horse came in the money).

My neighbors and I watched the pre-race hype and we all had a toast before the race with mint juleps. I got a little weepy when the horses entered the paddock as I always used to call my dad before the race to see who he liked and compare notes about the horses, jockeys, etc. When the song “My Old Kentucky Home” came on the TV, we all quieted to listen and when the choir at Churchill Downs started singing, the wind chimes in my neighbor’s back yard started “singing” too. There was absolutely no wind, and I noticed the chimes seeming to “chime” along with the words to the song and when the song was over, the chimes immediately stopped. I’m convinced it was my father singing through the chimes (he loved to sing). My neighbors noticed it also, so I wasn’t just imagining things.

The wind chimes only made another sound once that day right before I went back home (as if to say good bye). I believe my dad was there with me for the derby and I’m glad he’s watching over me and still watching the horse races. Once a gambler, always a gambler.

daddrf
Dad holding Daily Racing Form (1980s)

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