Ah, The Kentucky Derby. When we were little kids, our parents belonged to a not-terribly-fancy Hunt Club in northern Illinois. Admitting that I come from people who foxhunted is, in the circles in which I travel as an adult, sort of like saying we wore hoop skirts or held slaves. Stange, exotic and totally not PC. (But if I was to take up riding seriously again, it’s the only thing I’d be interested in pursuing — hunting is fun. I once interviewed an infamous Himalayan climber, who originally hails from a working-class family in Yorkshire, and who was embarassed nearly to death to tell me he’d taken up foxhunting with his Denver wife, but who also admitted that he loved it. That he loved galloping for hours and hours across the countryside.)
So anyway, the Huntmaster, who trained and took care of all the hounds, was a man named Bud Murphy. Uncle Bud, and his wife Pat. We spent a lot of time at their house in the couple of years right after our parents were divorced. And every year, they spent the winter in Mississippi with the hounds, and returned after The Derby. They had a full set of those souvenier mint julep glasses that list all the winners, and over our breakfast orange juice we’d study the litany of those names. Uncle Bud once tried to explain the trifecta to me, but it never made sense — I’m instinctively not a bettor. We were at their house the year Secretariat won the Belmont by such a margin they had to split the screen. Bud was leaning forward in his barcalounger, Pabst Blue Ribbon in a can clutched in one hand, speechless. It was a moment. That big red horse surging down toward the finish line. Seasoned horse people left speechless in their seats.
Today, I was supposed to meet a couple of girlfriends and their kids for a swim, but I bailed because I had a lot to do around the house. Turned out I built two spectacular cold frames, and watched on and off all day as ESPN ran the full race card from Louisville. Patrick and I watched the Derby together on the phone more times than I can say … usually he was working a race or a golf tournement somewhere, but he’d always find someone to get him a video feed. Today, I was out in the side yard, measuring and sawing and figuring out how to make this thing work, and then I’d come in and look at the tv, and catch a race — I don’t care which race, I love them all. That move they make as they come around the final curve … the outside horse moving up … the lead horse striving to hang on. I wind up in front of the TV chanting “come on! come on! oh! oh!” And then finally, the big race.
A lovely race. Lion’s Heart was a great horse — surging around the corner — when Smarty Jones, the underdog with the deep chest and the jockey who was running the Derby for the first time, comes surging up from behind, and with great joy, takes the lead and wins the race. It was fabulous (although I worry it nearly killed the horse’s elderly owner on oxygen). A storybook Derby. A new cold frame. A good day in the garden and inside the house remembering my people — the horse people. Uncle Bud in his olive-green barcalounger, leaning forward, can of PBR in hand, speechless as that screen split, as that big red horse ran away with all our hearts.