Commentary

It's a whole different Derby

Updated: April 30, 2009, 2:25 PM ET
By Billy Reed | Special to ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Hanging around the backstretch at Churchill Downs early this week, nursing what was maybe the zillionth cup of coffee I've had in 43 years of covering the Kentucky Derby, I feel more disoriented than at home.

I look for the giants of journalism who loved to cover the Derby and seldom missed it. But instead of Red Smith, Jim Murray and Shirley Povich, I saw a bunch of kids yakking into cell phones. They are bloggers -- or so I'm told.

In my role as ancient scribe, I'd love to talk to somebody about what it was like to cover the Dancer's Image disqualification in 1968. Or about the excitement swirling around Secretariat in 1973. Or about why Bill Hartack, winner of five, was the best Derby jockey ever.

But nobody asks. Nobody seems to care about history and tradition, even though they're essential to understanding why horsemen everywhere care so much about the Kentucky Derby.

So I stand around, sipping my coffee and getting almost ill as I gaze across the track and see what the suits who run Churchill have done to what is arguably the most famous tableau in all of sports.

A few years ago, in the name of progress and the almighty dollar, the suits thought it would be a swell idea to dwarf the track's famed twin spires by building towers of corporate suites on either side of them.

So that's why you no longer see that classic signature Derby photo of the Derby winner hitting the finish line with the twin spires etched against the sky in the background. The hideous new towers ruined it.

Which reminds me: If anybody ever reads that I have typed the words "the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands" other than to make fun of it, please take my computer away from me and send me out to pasture. Of all the classic sporting events, only the Masters hasn't sold out to TV and corporate America. God bless the Masters.

Of course, some things about the Derby are the same as when I covered my first one, Kauai King's wire-to-wire romp in 1966. (What I remember most about that day, in case you were wondering, is that Joe Hirsch of the Daily Racing Form brought his new roommate, the New York Jets' new quarterback, to the press box. As I recall, Joe Namath was wearing a blue sharkskin jacket.)

For one thing, there's the sometimes awkward dance that occurs between horse trainers who aren't accustomed to being interviewed and writers who aren't accustomed to covering horse racing.

In 1979, trainer LeRoy Jolley came to the Derby with General Assembly, a son of Secretariat. I'll always remember the morning when Joe Falls of the Detroit News, searching for an angle, asked Jolley whether he thought Secretariat would recognize his son if he saw him.

If looks could kill, Jolley would have been locked up for homicide that very moment.

[+] EnlargeWillie Hartack
Eliot Elisofon//Time Life Pictures/Getty ImagesBill Hartack is one of two jockeys who have won the Kentucky Derby five times.

This is a classic example of attributing human traits to horses, never a good idea but always a problem at Derby time. Jolley gave Falls a withering gaze, as if to say, "You idiot, don't you know that once a horse goes to stud, he becomes a breeding machine? He's bred to 60 or 70 mares a year. The only thing he recognizes is when it's time to go to work again."

Still, the horsemen and the media generally have gotten along remarkably well throughout the years. The horsemen, by and large, are thrilled to get some of the recognition that stars in other sports take for granted. And the writers love the access they get to quote machines such as Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito.

I've always loved the games Derby trainers and the media play with each other. To a man (no woman trainer has ever won the Derby, and none has a horse in this year's event), they say for public consumption that "it was just what we wanted" or "it sets him up perfectly" or some such gibberish.

The media core dutifully records these pearls of wisdom in notebooks or on tape. Only a few reporters, after all, know enough to question a trainer's judgment. Only later -- much, much later -- will they find out that a trainer really thought the work was too fast. Or too slow. Or too something he neglected to mention at Churchill.

The only time I've ever heard a trainer really say what he thought was in 1967, when Lloyd "Boo" Gentry was so furious with Proud Clarion's plodding workout that I thought he was going to pull nails out of the stall door and start chewing them.

Of course, on Derby Day, Proud Clarion came pounding down the stretch of a sloppy track to upset the favored Damascus and paid $62.20 for a $2 win ticket. In the winner's circle, Gentry looked as if there had been some mistake, as if somebody was playing a joke on him.

So here on the backstretch, I mosey around with my cup of coffee and overhear the bloggers Tweeting about such things as the upcoming draw for post positions. I want to break in and say "Hey, it doesn't really matter. … A horse who's right on the right day can win from Longfield Avenue if necessary."

Instead, I keep my mouth shut. I don't want to be a curmudgeon. I just want everybody to understand what trainer Jack Van Berg meant when he told me, "At the Kentucky Derby, you can throw all the records out the window, because it's just a matter of who the star shines on that particular day."

He was exactly right, because when you come down to it, the Kentucky Derby really is about fate and luck and the gods of racing. Anything can happen when you put 20 young horses into a starting gate and ask them to run a mile and a quarter for the first time in their lives.

In 1987, the star shined on Van Berg, who won the roses with Alysheba. In 2009, well, who knows? But now, if you will excuse me, I'm taking my cup of coffee over to Barn 42. Call me a fool, even an old fool, but I want to see whether there just might be a shining star in Chocolate Candy's future.

Billy Reed is a three-time Eclipse Award winner and a native of Kentucky.