Well, we’re about to enter serious Kentucky Derby time. I’m sitting in the nearly empty press box at Churchill Downs, working on a story that will run early next week. And to get you into the horse racing spirit, I want to share with you one of my favorite pieces of horse racing writing.
It’s by Red Smith, the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist of The New York Times, and before that, the great New York Herald-Tribune. This piece captures the essence of the race fan better than just about anything I’ve ever read.
It originally appeared in the old Herald-Tribune in 1948, and was reprinted in “The Red Smith Reader,” published by Random House in 1982. It’s available in paperback from this link on Amazon.com.
A very pious story
By RED SMITH
At the Derby, Walter Haight, a well-fed horse author from Washington, told it this way.
There’s this horseplayer and he can’t win a bet. He’s got patches in his pants from the way even odds-on favorites run up the alley when he’s backing them and the slump goes on until he’s utterly desperate. He’s ready to listen to any advice when a friend tells him: “No wonder you don’t have any luck, you don’t live right. Nobody could do any good the way you live. Why, you don’t even go to church. Why don’t you get yourself straightened out and try to be a decent citizen and just see then if things don’t get a lot better for you?”
Now, the guy has never exactly liked to bother heaven with his troubles. Isn’t even sure whether they have horse racing up there and would understand his difficulties. But he’s reached a state where steps simply have to be taken. So, the next day being Sunday, he does go to church and sits attentively through the whole service and joins in the hymn-singing and says “Amen” at the proper times and puts his buck on the collection plate.
All that night he lies awake waiting for a sign that things are going to get better; nothing happens. Next day he gets up and goes to the track, but this time he doesn’t buy a racing form or scratch sheet or Jack Green’s Card or anything. Just gets his program and sits in the stands studying the field for the first race and waiting for a sign. None comes, so he passes up the race. He waits for the second race and concentrates on the names of the horses for that one, and again there’s no inspiration. So again he doesn’t bet. Then, when he’s looking them over for the third, something seems to tell him to bet on a horse named Number 4.
“Lord, I’ll do it,” he says. And he goes down and puts the last fifty dollars he’ll ever be able to borrow on Number 4 to win. Then he goes back to his seat and waits until the horses come onto the track.
Number 4 is a little fractious in the parade, and the guy says, “Lord, please quiet him down. Don’t let him get himself hurt.” The horse settles down immediately and walks calmly into the starting gate.
“Thank you, Lord,” says the guy. “Now please get him off clean. He don’t have to break on top, but get him away safe without getting slammed or anything, please.” The gate comes open and Number 4 is off well, close up in fifth place and saving ground going to the first turn. There he begins to move up a trifle on the rail and for an instant it looks as though he might be in close quarters.
“Let him through, Lord,” the guy says. “Please make them horses open up a little for him.” The horse ahead moves out just enough to let Number 4 through safely.
“Thank you, Lord,” says the guy, “but let’s not have no more trouble like that. Have the boy take him outside.” Sure enough, as they go down the backstretch the jockey steers Number 4 outside, where he’s lying fourth.
They’re going to the far turn when the guy gets agitated. “Don’t let that boy use up the horse,” he says. “Don’t let the kid get panicky, Lord. Tell him to rate the horse awhile.” The rider reaches down and takes a couple of wraps on the horse and keeps him running kind, just cooking on hte outside around the turn.
Wheeling into the stretch, Number 4 is still lying fourth. “Now, Lord,” the guy says. “Now we move. Tell that kid to go to the stick.” The boy outs with his bat and, as Ted Atkinson says, he really “scouges” the horse. Number 4 lays his ears back and gets to running.
He’s up to third. He closes the gap ahead and now he’s lapped on the second horse and now he’s at his throat latch and everything behind him is good and cooked. He closes ground stride by stride with the boy working on him for all he’s worth, and the kid up front putting his horse to a drive.
“Please, Lord,” the guy says. “Let him get out in front. Give me one call on the top end, anyway.”
Number 4 keeps coming. At the eighth pole he’s got the leader collared. He’s past him. He’s got the lead by two lengths.
“Thank you, Lord,” the guy says. “I’ll take him from here. Come on, you son of a bitch!”