Saturday, May 4, 2013
Updated: May 6, 3:42 AM ET
When will I ever listen?
The taxi man didn't quite get me to Churchill Downs. Something about not having the right sticker. Who knows if this was even a cab. It was yellow, anyway. The man dropped me a half-mile from Churchill's main entrance. It was going to be a long walk. It was going to be a long day.
All the umbrella sales were taking place on the opposite side of Central Avenue. Crossing the road was not allowed. Something about barricades and police. I hadn't taken the weather reports seriously. I didn't listen. Entering the track with my suit soaking wet would be the least of my regrets.
Just before going in, I heard someone on the street yelling through speakers that I would pay for my sins.
That man was talking about eternal damnation for entering the gambling establishment. I'll have to deal with that issue later. Today the payment for my sins was that I got nothing out of the deal when a friend won the Kentucky Derby.
Well, I mean I'm happy for her. I'll think of that a lot when I go to an ATM and have money again.
I've known Daisy Phipps-Pulito for about 15 years. We used to work together back when I was doing live horse race coverage for ESPN and she was running the TV department for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. Her dad is Dinny Phipps, chairman of the Jockey Club and a successful horse owner for decades. The Phipps family name has been prominent in industry, commerce and racing for a century or so. They're probably in that 39.6 percent tax bracket. Even so, to us, Daisy was always the girl next door. Probably in a house next door that was larger. But still. She didn't act privileged. She held a regular job, she downplayed her family's successes. In fact, when one of the Phipps Stable horses was running, she never boasted about the horse's chances.
Except one time.
It was the Breeders' Cup of 2005, Belmont Park. Daisy asked me to come up to the family's box and meet her mom. Then she let me know that they really liked Pleasant Home in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. I'd already made my expert analysis of the field and Pleasant Home had little chance of hitting the board, much less winning this thing. The favorite, Ashado, looked like an easy winner.
Good luck with that, Daisy. Nice to meet you, mom.
Pleasant Home won by nine lengths and paid $63.50.
Daisy had done everything but stand in line for me to bet. But I didn't listen.
I was real happy for her, though.
She called me down to the winner's enclosure to be in the picture. There were a lot of people in that picture. A picture's worth a thousand words. A lot of people in that picture had won thousands of dollars. I was just in the picture.
When Orb won the Florida Derby, I was happy for Daisy once more. She'd taken over as the racing manager for her father's stable. Orb's win was as impressive as any in the Derby preps. I'd found my Derby horse and had a direct link to the colt. The Phipps family owns Orb with a cousin, Stuart Janney. Neither had won a Kentucky Derby. Nor had the family's trainer, Shug McGaughey, whose patience with horses had him passing on entering most years when others might have forced the issue. The fact these connections had a Derby starter at all this year was thus a sign of great confidence.
The first person I saw when I checked in to my hotel Wednesday night was Shug. All smiles. Not a care in the world. He was days away from sending out the morning-line Derby favorite. "We feel really good about him."
I saw Daisy the very next morning on the backstretch. "Feeling good about your animal?" I asked. She nodded in such a way that suggested she was saying, "Remember that time I told you to play Pleasant Home in the Breeders' Cup, but you were really stupid and didn't listen and then when she won and we took that picture, you were the only one in the picture who didn't bet a lot of money on her?" I'm certain she said all that through her simple nod.
I asked if she was surprised Orb had been made the favorite over unbeaten Verrazano.
With a nod and a word, I had all I needed. I already liked the horse a lot. The stride analysts suggested Orb had looked better than any other in the Churchill workouts, and now Shug and Daisy said and didn't say all the right things.
Just then, as Orb was jogging out slowly, along came Normandy Invasion in an unplanned and out of control three-furlong sprint. The invasion the horse was named for was good. The invasion into Orb's space wasn't. Daisy was suddenly not feeling good at all about her horse. A collision was averted by mere inches. Those in the Orb camp were relieved. Crisis averted. Daisy felt good about her horse again. She didn't even have to nod.
The horse I liked next most was Goldencents, winner of the Santa Anita Derby. It just so happened we would end up working on a couple of stories Thursday and Friday that included the trainer of Goldencents, Doug O'Neill. In a horse racing version of Stockholm Syndrome, I began to identify with my interview subject captor over those two days. Goldencents looked very fast and would likely be placed toward the front end of the Derby. The question was whether he could stay the mile and a quarter. That didn't seem to be a question at all with Orb. But then I started looking again at the times and the speed ratings and began to wrestle with the fact Orb's numbers seemed just a little off -- no matter how impressive his Florida win was and how he'd conducted himself once at Churchill.
A picture's worth a thousand words. A lot of people in that picture had won thousands of dollars. I was just in the picture.
I would end up using Orb on top of some exotic tickets but the eventual runner-up, Golden Soul, was a throwout.
Goldencents was my true key horse. The rains and sloppy track would only increase the advantage of his front-running style. Orb and the others wouldn't care for all that muck thrown in their faces.
Goldencents stopped running about the time Orb started. Goldencents appeared to be going backwards on a treadmill. Coming from the back of the field, Orb and jockey Joel Rosario were obscured by all the slop thrown at them, but they could always be cleaned up before it was time to take a picture. Goldencents finished 17th.
As I was making my departure from Churchill Downs, I crossed paths with Daisy and her family. Hugs and kisses and a meaningful handshake with her brother. I got to meet her mom again. No one brought up Pleasant Home. I told you they don't brag about their horses.
As she walked away Daisy turned and asked, "Do you want to come to the party?" I had work to do so I'd be late. Late to the party. Too late also to change my betting strategy (which merely deprived me of a trifecta worth more than $6,000).
I'm happy for Daisy. I am. I can go to an ATM.
The man telling me I'd pay for my sins wasn't outside when I left the grounds. It wasn't necessary. I knew.
Goldencents stopped running about the time Orb started. Goldencents appeared to be going backwards on a treadmill.