Why I Hate The Kentucky Derby
Horse racing is something that has a very personal connection for me and there is no bigger race than the Kentucky Derby. Growing up I spent any time with my Grandfather he could find. He was a firefighter and often worked strange hours.
When we got together we generally went for lunch or dinner and just talked. Once he retired, though, I got to see what his true hobby was. That was betting on the horses.
I spent one day in particular with him, which is one that will stick in my memory forever. I was too young to bet, but he brought me along for the experience. He bought us box seats, which I thought must of cost him his entire life savings (the ones we got were probably the price of a movie ticket), and we sat down with the paper, some betting book he brought, a few hotdogs and some cold drinks.
I loved the sights, the sounds, and even the scents that surrounded us. Some of the people looked to be there to spend a little cash for fun, while others looked to be desperate for a win to pay bills.
To me, it was a cross-section of where we lived. My Grandfather spent extra time with me explaining trifectas, win-place-show bets and a number of other “highly technical” terms as he put it.
He was a savant when it came to horse racing – or so he ensured me. As a kid, probably 10 or 11 years old, I couldn’t argue with him.
Before the first races started I headed with him to the boxes where he made the bets and he took my advice under careful consideration. My advice, of course, had to do with which name sounded fastest. As a comic nerd, name a horse ‘Wally West’ or ‘The Flash’ and you can guarantee all of my support would be going towards your horse.
Once we got back to the seats, we reviewed our tickets and got ready for the first races. I recall a number of races showing on televisions viewable from where we sat and he explained that those were races from other tracks. I simply sat back and got ready.
He was a very calm man. He enjoyed sitting and taking his time to enjoy life as it came at him. As soon as that bell rang, though, you would have thought he was possessed. I still don’t repeat to my Mom some of the words he used as he tried to help his picks get to the front of the pack.
It took me a few races to start to see the intricacies of how the horses would jockey for position but once I had that down I was on my feet screaming and cheering along with him. Every moment was more exciting than the last. We went with a set budget so wins and losses really didn’t matter. If losses upset my Grandfather, he didn’t show it.
Throughout the day we continued to use our snack budget to keep me alive. Obviously, as a young growing boy, I needed constant sustenance every 10 minutes. I’m pretty sure he was fairly annoyed at the constant trips to the food stands as he didn’t hide it well at all.
Still, he kept me fed and actually used my advice on a few races. I don’t remember the results, but it didn’t matter.
What really stuck with me to this day was the feeling of being part of something bigger than just the two of us. While those around us were not always screaming or cheering for the same horses we were, all of us were there for the collective enjoyment of the hobby.
We met some fantastic people and I was let off the leash quiet frequently to wander and talk to others. I’ve always been a people person and I used that time to get to know those that seemed to be winning more and used my age and innocent to get insight into their winning picks.
We didn’t get rich off my little scheme, but I did notice our takes were more frequent once I started telling my Grandfather what the big shots were betting on.
Finally, towards the end of the day, he bet my 10 dollars for me and said I could have the winnings. He laughed as he said it because my bet was on such a long shot the payout would be around 500 dollars.
We had a little while before the next race. Enough time for him to run to the restroom, catch up with someone he knew and for me to sit and plan how I would spend my winnings. He returned to our box just as the race was starting and reminded me not to get my hopes up.
Five hundred dollars in the late 80’s was a good chunk of change for a kid my age and when I met up with him to collect my winnings. I, rudely, counted it right there in front of my bookie, my Grandfather. 250 bucks is all that I received.
I asked him if I did the math wrong and he explained that I did. I didn’t take out the 50% cut that I had to pay him to bet for me. After all, I was too young and without him I could not have made the bet.
I told him he never paid 50% towards the pot – thinking I was going to catch him in a trap, but he gave me 10 bucks instead and said that he was tipping me for the advice.
This is who my Grandfather was. Honest, hardworking and always teaching. I learned at that point that nothing comes free. He did take me out for a huge dinner a few weeks later, which he used his half of the winnings on, and in retrospect he definitely used more than 250 dollars in his part of bringing me up – but the lesson stood at that point.
The only negative memory I have of that trip was the travel first, and the begging second. The begging got worse as the day went on and chronic gamblers ran out of money. I experienced this again in my adulthood in Vegas, but at such a young age, seeing grown men begging for two dollars because they had a sure fire win on their hands was somewhat shocking.
I now know that those were simply people that couldn’t control their gambling. It is like drinking, smoking and eating, in moderation it is nothing but fun – but when you let it control your life it has an impact on those around you.
It wasn’t common and from what I can tell it is even less so these days. But the worst part of the day was fighting to get out of the parking lot.
We stayed until the place shut down and the races were over. Sitting there in the truck with cash in hand, begging to be wasted, killed me as I watched my Grandfather fight, in frustration, to even pull out of his parking spot.
We learned later to arrive early and leave about an hour before the final race – but we didn’t always follow that rule.