She’s a winner: She saw Secretariat and American Pharaoh at the Derby
Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 14, 2015
By Gerrie Blackwelder
Special to the Post
My husband and I are not betting people, but daily we ask the question: “What are the odds that you only went to two Kentucky Derbies and you saw two Triple Crown winners?” We are amazed!
What is the chance that someone from North Carolina went to two Kentucky Derby races 42 years apart and saw the two horses that became the fastest Triple Crown winners on record?
Forty-two years ago, in 1973, I saw the super horse Secretariat, and this year, my husband and I were seated in the Twin Spires as American Pharoah ran for the roses and created a Triple Crown bid that ended last Saturday.
At 8, my father bought me a Shetland pony that I confidently rode all over my universe. At 18, he took me to Churchill Downs famed 11th race, The Kentucky Derby, to see the fastest horse in the universe, Secretariat, owned by the fabulous Penny Cheney.
That first year, Dad and I set up our classic aluminum-framed, green and white nylon tape lawn chairs in the infield far closer to the finish line rail than spectators are allowed today. As the race approached, I was shaking so badly that my Dad held me atop the aluminum lawn chair as I watched Secretariat cross the finish line.
When my husband told me last fall that he was visiting Mullis Travel Agency to set up the trip to Churchill Downs, I nearly cried. When he told me at a Wednesday meal at church several weeks later that we had the Derby tickets, I jumped up and down and did cry. There was no grand noise over the lineup for the Derby this year until a few days prior to the race, so I felt it could not possibly measure up to another Triple Crown. I also knew that seeing Secretariat was never to be topped.
Still, I was excited to be among the spectators to share the thrill of seeing a horse thunder down the stretch, jockey at full crouch position. Friends and family kept telling me over and over that I had to dress up and wear a hat, but all I was interested in was seeing and hearing the thunderous moment as the horses faced off. It is heart-stopping to see the field of muscular thoroughbreds make the turn and head down the stretch. This is where history is made, and the second Saturday in May was historic, indeed.
During the day, many ask of each other “Is this your first Derby?” I stopped conversations cold by telling others that I had been present for Secretariat in the 99th Run for the Roses as an 18-year-old. I was offered free drinks, places at the rail, and deep respect for being there as a young girl. In horse racing culture, saying those words is pure magic. Some people even took our picture when they learned that I had seen that great horse run and in the paddocks.
And I did wear a very large hat that was photographed by Getty Corporation for publication as I was at the paddock this year. One of the most interesting moments is watching as the jockeys mount their horses there in the paddock. Those men are not merely small; they are an average of 90 pounds each. My hat was bigger than some of those jockeys. Seeing a jockey in North Carolina and seeing one there is a world of difference. The full ride with jockey and added weights is usually about 120 pounds for the horse to carry during the race. As soon as possible the rider, weights and saddle are weighed again to ensure that nothing was removed prior to the race for an unfair advantage.
Victor Espinoza is an amazing rider who knows intuitively the horse and every nuance of the animal. It was no accident that he was chosen to wear the Zayat colors of yellow and green for each of the Triple Crown runs.
In the days prior to the Derby, Darrell and I visited the Kentucky Horse Farm, took a thoroughbred horse farm tour, had lunch in the historic section of Lexington at Shakespeare’s Tavern, and enjoyed a full day of racing for the Kentucky Oaks. This is the running of mares so that breeding rights are established. The flower for The Oaks is the lily and the special drink is a sweet drink called a Lily as well. It is impressive and a fun day, but no Kentucky Derby, either.
Some fun facts about the visit:
- There are people who spend great sums of money to fly in on private jets just to see the Derby. They do not get there until Derby time and leave immediately afterward.
- A gentleman in our seating section comes each year for only the 11th race, the Derby, and visits the grave of his favorite racehorse, Invisible Ink, prior to the race, placing a bouquet of flowers on his grave.
- People at the track on Derby day were wonderful and friendly.
- Male racehorses are extremely aggressive and bite. During farm visits, guests are asked not to reach out to the males.
- Until they are 2 or 3 years old and begin racing, foals are named by number and name of the mother. We saw Flashy American, a $5 million brood mare, and Flashy American 14.
- Ladies can buy a hat at the Churchill Downs shop.
- Kentucky Derby horses look much bigger and better than other horses. American Pharoah looked better than any other Derby horse by far.
- The farms now have black fences because it is cheaper for upkeep.
- Horse farm tours are wonderful, and you get to pet the foals and talk with farm hands.
The unfortunate thing about my visit as an 18-year-old is that I did not keep my entrance ticket or my winning betting ticket (a $2 bet that my dad insisted that I put on a horse. And I made $3 on a $2 bet). But I do have a picture of Secretariat going past me in the stretch.
This time I saved everything. And I wore the hat. And a pair of white pants in memory of that 18-year-old girl who wore white pants 42 years earlier. And I drank a mint julep, though I do not like those at all.
And, I thank my husband eternally for this unique and wonderful memory.