” And They’re Off!”

Churchill Downs Up and Running Again

I was watching the Derby this weekend and it brought me back to my youth at the track. You see, I never owned a horse, never rode a horse, and the closest I ever got to a horse was at the paddocks at Waterford Park over in West Virginia now known as Mountaineer Raceway. My grandparents were horse racing fans and every Friday night during the summers, they took me to the track. We would have a nice early dinner, drive down to Waterford, and take in a few races. My grandmother always placed ” show” bets because she always said she had a better chance at getting something than using my grandfather’s tactics of only betting on the win. She would get her money back with a third place, for instance, a “show” and laugh at my grandfather for not getting anything for his ” win ” bet. Always a competition between those two. I learned to read a handicap sheet and when I took them both in later years to a horserace handicap class at the University of Pittsburgh, my grandmother would tell me at the end of every outing that she could teach that class. The professor didn’t know anything in her book. But she enjoyed the night out.

My grandparents took me to all the good tracks as a kid. All over Florida and the south, and also we went to see the Preakness one year in Baltimore. But there is nothing like the Derby at Churchill Downs and in later years, I had the opportunity to see it from two vantage points- the infield- and the more genteel grandstands at the Kentucky Oaks and the Derby the following day.

The Infield at the Derby

My first experience was watching the races from the infield. A pretty crazy scene which was, shall we say, a little less “refined ” than watching in the grandstands with all the suits and beautiful hats. The infield was a conglomeration of big time party people who rarely took time to watch the races. The general admission crowd. I was along the rail with some veterans who had a mild interest in what was happening on the track. But for the most part, the Derby from the vantage point of the infield was pretty nuts. I was amazed at the guys who walked around with bushel baskets full of donated cash. They had a sign imploring any female to disrobe for cash and when they did( basically from the waist up) the guys dumped the money on their heads and started the process all over again. People are amazing when you infuse a huge crowd, heat, booze, all together in one place. You see some things you never see and you are happy that you made it out of the joint in one piece and with your wallet and watch in tact.

Pretty crazy scene – cheap mint juleps abounding.

Fast forward, I had the opportunity to see the Kentucky Oaks and the Derby from the grandstands. Wearing a sport coat and tie with my wife Janet in tow – wearing a beautiful dress and hat, we enjoyed the races from another point of view. Janet wondered where I got my acumen for placing bets and I explained my youth and what my grandparents taught me about para mutual betting. I explained the trifecta and when we placed a bet for Jan, it turned out that she won $350.00 on the Derby and was thrilled. She thought I was a genius when only dumb luck prevailed and the knowledge of getting to the window right before the closing bell. Sure I looked at the odds but really it was more luck than anything. But the smile on my bride’s face when she won was – priceless.

I remember asking Janet if she wanted to take a walk down to see the crazies in the infield. She reluctantly said yes and we took a stroll all dressed in our finest. When we got close the infield, all we heard was a chorus of ” DWEEBS”. I laughed because it was true. In the world of the infield, we were dweebs in spite of the fact that we had a really nice time in the more genteel atmosphere of the grandstands. I was happy my wife did not see the usual suspects with their bushel baskets.

It has been years since I have been to the track but I keep threatening to go. Maybe this summer Janet and I will venture over to Mountaineer Raceway? In the meantime, we will wait for the Preakness and the Belmont and see if the elusive triple crown winner will emerge in 2021? Thanks for reading and go to the track. You will enjoy your outing. Think of Mary Reynolds- place a show bet.

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