Lesson Learned At The Derby
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.
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 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.
Goldencents stopped running about the time Orb started. Goldencents appeared to be going backwards on a treadmill.
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. Preach, Daisy.
A long, long time ago, when this project was just a bunch of phone calls and desperate emails to bosses, there finally came a day when one of the men on high told us to go make things happen. Just make it happen in a week. We needed someplace foreign and interesting, but also fairly local. Canada was close, but we're more ambitious than that. Plus, by picking London, the most expensive city in the world, they might look the other way if one day we bought an elephant in Thailand.
In England, the crew bought me a cricket uniform and I learned how to play that ancient (some might call it "boring") game. We also went to the Lion's Den, a very exciting stadium where the Millwall Football Club does business and its rowdy fans are reputed to do bad things. We took the risk and lived to tell the tale.
To read more about my trips, check it out here.
This story appears in the Aug. 22, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
The last fight I remember getting into was in seventh grade. Dennis Doran and I were below-average basketball players, and we were scrapping at the gym in order to make our mark in a pickup game. Things escalated from there. It wasn't much of a fight, something just short of when relief pitchers jog to the mound from the bullpen and pretend to join a brawl. But still.
So nearly 40 years later, a guy standing two feet away at a restaurant in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., is preparing to take a swing at me. What incensed him was that on TV just one week earlier, I'd had the nerve to say nice things about California's storied Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.
I tried to explain how I felt that it's okay to have strong feelings for both Del Mar and Saratoga, but this guy, as a devout Saratoga fan, felt violated. He backed off eventually -- he'd probably heard of my draw vs. Doran during the Ali-Frazier era -- but his wounds were apparent, because Saratoga is as much a feeling as it is a place.
There's something important going on there, and just by being in town during the 40-day meet, you are a part of it. The racing, which moves north from Belmont Park in mid-July, culminates in late August, when the top 3-year-olds in the country come to Saratoga for the Travers Stakes, aka the Midsummer Derby. As legendary Saratoga rider John Velazquez tells me, "This is where the best horses, best trainers and best jockeys come. And if you want to shine, this is the place."
I'd heard of Saratoga while growing up some 3,000 miles away in Seattle. It seemed a distant, mythical place. The kind of place where Seabiscuit raced. The kind of place Carly Simon referred to in song. Horse racing's Hall of Fame is across the street, for goodness' sake, so it had to be a big deal. And it's been so for a long time. The war between the states was raging when Saratoga opened in 1863, and the North deserved one hell of a track.