The First Sunday in May

I once was asked what accounted for Kentuckians being, for the most part, such down-to-earth people.

That’s easy.

One day a year, the great majority of us wake up feeling stupid and broke.

That day would be today. The First Sunday in May (most years), the day after the Kentucky Derby.

On this day, with our hangovers to cure and our messes to clean, we put away our fancy clothes, swear off Mint Juleps — seriously, this time — and note that, as the nation turns its gaze away from here, those folks don’t know much more than we do, as it turns out.

“Weep no more?” You should know, Stephen Foster, who penned “My Old Kentucky Home,” died while living in a New York City flophouse — with only 37 cents to his name. On the First Sunday in May, many of us can relate.

On this day we’re reminded again why we don’t trust “experts” too much in Kentucky. The Courier-Journal on Saturday invited 27 so-called horse racing “experts” to submit their top three picks for the Derby. Sadly, I was one of them.

None of the experts picked the winner. But it’s better than that. Given 81 chances, none of the “experts” even included the winner in their top three. In fact, of those 81 picks, only 11 included a horse that finished in the money — Pioneerof the Nile.


There’s nothing like a horse race to remind you that life is like a maiden claimer. You never know what you’re going to get.

Usually, however, you can take a look at a Kentucky Derby winner’s form and see what you missed. It’s like looking at one of those “Magic Eye” pictures when the image finally jumps out at you. Or you can see a flaw in the way the race was run that accounted for somebody coming out of nowhere. Fact is, few horses come from out of nowhere to win this race. Giacomo was the first I had encountered in my years of covering the Derby.

Giacomo looked like a superhorse compared to Mine That Bird, who skipped along the rail for a 6 3/4-length win on Saturday. (Second largest ever? Largest margin since Assault, 1946? Are you kidding?) Oh, sure, this gelding was the Canadian 2-year-old champion. He’d been purchased and raced in New Mexico after that. But come on. This is, remember, the Kentucky Derby. The Jamaican bobsled team might be a big deal in the Caribbean, but it doesn’t roll into the winter Olympics and win gold.

Mine That Bird did.

I give local race observers credit. They were quick to point out parallels to the past.

The first thing I thought about was Empire Maker. He was poised to win the Derby in 2003. He was the favorite. He was third entering the stretch, in perfect position. The official race comments say he “loomed boldly.” Then a gelding flashed by inside of him, and Funny Cide won. Now here came Pioneerof the Nile, Empire Maker’s son. He poked a head in front in the stretch. He was just about to loom. Boldly. Then, just like old dad, he saw a gelding fly past him on the inside.

A reader, Jack Wood of Princeton, Ky., likened Calvin Borel’s ride on Mine That Bird to Bill Shoemaker’s on Ferdinand in 1986.

But probably the most astute comparison drawn was made both by John Asher of Churchill Downs and Andy Beyer of The Washington Post. In 1971, Cannonero II was ridiculed for having no business in the Kentucky Derby. He’d won only races in Venezuela, and done nothing to suggest he could even compete with his Derby rivals. But he, too, came from far off the pace to win by 3 3/4 lengths for what was then considered the biggest upset in Derby history.

It was dismissed as a fluke, until he won the Preakness and went on to take Horse of the Year honors. Sometimes, I guess, a horse just gets good.

But with just a quarter mile to run, Canonero II was in fourth place and just three lengths off the lead. Mine That Bird was in 12th place, 11 lengths from the leader — and won by a massive 6 3/4.

No Derby winner, since the official chart began featuring a call for the one-mile point in 1925, has passed more horses in the final quarter mile to win the Kentucky Derby than Mine That Bird did on Saturday. He passed 11. Giacomo passed 10.

“The Wrong Horse”

I’m reminded of my late friend Cliff Guilliams, who used to have me over for his small pre-Derby gatherings. The crowd varied just a little bit, but always included two of the most knowledgeable horse racing writers in the nation — Steve Haskin and Ed Fountaine. Nick Zito came when he could. I had about as much business in that company as, well, Mine That Bird seemed to have the Derby. Actually less.

But between Cliff, Steve and Ed, they could cite every bloodline, every turn of foot of just about every Derby. Deep into the night, they would extol the virtues of this favorite horse from the past or that. And occasionally, when it was pointed out that the particular horse didn’t win the Derby, the explanation came from Cliff, “Well, it’s simple. The wrong horse won.”

That sounds good to me. D. Wayne Lukas likes to say, “People have opinions, horses have facts.” After a Derby like this one, I’m not sure. I’d rather think that sometimes, the people were right, and the horses screwed it up.

Certain uncertainty

For me, the First Sunday in May begins in the same place every year — the Bristol Bar and Grill on Bardstown Road. There, a moderate (in number, if not behavior) band of journalists and friends gathers after the Derby to curse horses and proclaim the day the Worst. Derby. Ever.

You’ve got writers from New York and New Orleans, Orlando, Louisville and parts beyond.

Before that, I walk through a darkened and empty Churchill Downs, losing tickets like so many white flower petals covering the brick paths.

The First Sunday in May teaches you, it’s no easier to make sense of the whole thing on the back end than it is on the front end.

About the only predictable thing about the whole enterprise is those little white slips, a kind of certain uncertainty, and that urge to laugh at it all when you wake up in the morning.


12 thoughts on “The First Sunday in May

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