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Making a spectacle at the Derby

Kentucky Derby: Big hats, mint juleps, decadence and, oh, yeah, the most exciting two minutes in sports.

Spectators wait for the seventh race before the running of the 139th Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs Friday, May 3, 2013, in Louisville, Ky. (Charlie Riedel/AP)
Spectators wait for the seventh race before the running of the 139th Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs Friday, May 3, 2013, in Louisville, Ky. (Charlie Riedel/AP)Read more

The Derby is not run for Mitt Romney's "47 percent," even if many of them jam the infield and sell all those mint juleps and corn dogs. It is run for the swells who cram the boxes high above the race track, throwing $100 bills at mutuel tellers like revelers tossing confetti in Times Square on New Year's Eve.

It is decadent and depraved and outrageous, with women decked out in hats that look like skyscrapers and men willing to part with their senses and money in equal measure. It is always on the first Saturday in May in a city hard by the Ohio River that gave us Muhammad Ali and gives us a race that never disappoints.

If you take a step back and consider the insanity of it all, you know it's absurd. Then, you quickly suspend your disbelief and, before you know it, it's Derby Day in Louisville and you're looking to hit the superfecta or, at least, find a way to get out of town with your dignity.

My first trip to Churchill came in the mid-1970s when I went to visit a friend who was attending Centre College. It was at the fall meeting and the only thing I really remember about the track was that it was dark and foreboding. All I recall about the day is that I happened to run into somebody I had not seen in a long time who owed me money. He had the same excuse. Just did not have the cash. So why was he at the track?

My first Derby was in 1978. I came as a fan to bet on Affirmed. He could not lose. Fortunately, more of the bettors thought Alydar could not lose. They were wrong. I was right. I was hooked.

I covered my first Derby in 1984 for a sports paper in Baltimore. The paper had started the previous fall and would not make it to the next winter, but it was the perfect place to start. You could make every mistake imaginable and nobody noticed.

Swale won in 1984. It was the only Derby ever won by Laffit Pincay Jr., the greatest jockey of his era or maybe any era. It was the last Derby won by Woody Stephens, a man who was in the middle of training five consecutive winners of the Belmont Stakes and who would remind you of that every time he saw you.

Woody was supposed to win with the unbeatable Devil's Bag that year. Turned out Devil's Bag was beatable and, by mid-Derby Week, had been declared out of the race. Devil's Bag never raced again.

It was your classic horse-racing bait-and-switch. It looks like this, but it is really that. It was a lesson I never forgot.

My first Derby for the Daily News was 1987. The timing could not have been better. Bob Levy and friends owned Bet Twice. A sportsman in every sense of the word, Levy, who owned Atlantic City Race Course and part of the Phillies, insisted that everybody involved, even the writers, have fun.

I remember watching the race in Levy's box, except I did not watch the race. I watched the owners and friends of the owners watching the race. And then wrote about what I saw.

Bet Twice had the lead in the stretch, but finished second. Same thing happened in the Preakness. Then, Bet Twice blew the field away in the Belmont Stakes and everybody ended up at 21 Club that night reliving the 5 weeks of the Triple Crown like it was starting over.

Never thought I would see another horse with local connections have a chance and then, from 2004 to 2006, we had Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and Barbaro.

My friend Bruce Casella practically lived with John Servis during Smarty Derby Week, getting the best inside-access video of a Derby winner anybody has ever gotten.

Afleet Alex was the best horse, but finished third. I still don't know how he didn't win.

Barbaro gave the greatest Derby performance I have seen in person.

And it would have been nice to know what would have happened with Union Rags last year if he had not been eliminated at the start.

Local stories, national stories, international stories, the Derby has a bottomless supply of stories at practically every barn on the backstretch.

I have covered every Derby for the Daily News since 1987. I took a sip of a mint julep in 1978 and vowed never again. Anything else Derby Week, I am game.

There are certain Derby Week rituals that must be repeated. I try to arrive in town Tuesday afternoon so I can get enough sleep for the 5 a.m. wakeup call on Wednesday.

Horse people are different than the rest of us. Their work is done from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. But, before I can listen to the trainers, the owners and the jockeys as I wander the barn area looking for stories and nuggets that might send me in the direction of a winning superfecta, I must be at Pat's Steaks on Tuesday night.

Not that Pat's Steaks. This is an actual restaurant just east of downtown with napkins and waiters and gigantic steaks and Derby Pie. But they can't call it Derby Pie because that's trademarked. And they don't call it pie anyway. Down here in "Lulvull," it is "paaaaah."

Before the pie, there are race-track stories and a long, serious discussion of the Derby in 5 days. I start paying attention to the Derby right after the Breeders' Cup. I watch a lot and read even more. Those few hours at Pat's are the final lessons before the exam when I listen to the writers who cover horse racing every day of the year.

A few regulars are at Pat's every year at our table, but you never really know who could end up at Pat's in a given year. It is always an eclectic group - writers, trainers, jockey agents, owners, legendary race caller Dave Johnson a few times.

Pat's is so old-school that it takes no credit cards. It is a good primer for the week. Derby Week, it is all about the cash.

This year, we had a field of 13 at Pat's - four clockers (who watch every move of every Derby horse for the final 2 weeks before the race and are in high demand for the kind of information they possess), four newspaper writers, jockey's agent to the stars Ron Anderson (he has Joel Rosario, who just set a spring meet record at Keeneland with 38 winners and will ride Orb in the Derby), ESPN's Hank Goldberg, Jim Gluckson, the crack PR man for the Breeders' Cup, Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott and Daily News alum Dana O'Neil, who is in town to shadow Rick Pitino for

Dana does not know much about the track, but she knows a good story. And, really, what could be better than the coach of the hometown national champions trying to win the Derby with Goldencents, the Santa Anita Derby winner in which he has a 5 percent interest?

Pitino owns one of those sky boxes overlooking the finish line. I will be in the press box or wandering around the track Saturday afternoon. Dana will be in Pitino's fifth-floor suite allegedly working in between trips to the carving station and sampling trays overflowing with salmon and shrimp. Perhaps, they will have some of that bizarre Kentucky creation burgoo up there on Millionaire's Row.

I always spend Wednesday and Thursday mornings on the backstretch, listening and observing, trying to separate fact from fiction, fantasy from reality, getting some final nuggets for feature stories, but mostly trying to get steered in the direction of the Derby winner.

Some picks are relatively easy, like Affirmed. By post time, I was certain of Barbaro. Big Brown was easy weeks before the race and just as easy in the running. I could have been on the backstretch for months and never found Mine That Bird. I liked Giacomo to hit the super ticket, but he was not supposed to win.

There was always what they call a "press party" downtown on Thursday. I used to go, but it got too loud and I kept seeing people I no longer wanted to see or, after a few days in town, hear. So it is time for a quiet dinner and winnowing down contenders for a place on my superfecta ticket.

Friday is Kentucky Oaks Day when 100,000 come to the Downs to see the fillies run. One year, I passed the Oaks and drove down to Mammoth Cave. Definitely worth the trip, but you can't win any money in caves.

Most of the work is done so Oaks Day is for gambling. And there was no better Oaks than when Pennsylvania-bred Plum Pretty won in 2011 at 6-1. I watched her final prep race on my laptop in Newark after Kentucky beat North Carolina to get to the Final Four. I could not wait until the Oaks. Sometimes, you just know.

I knew Big Brown was going to win the Derby in 2008. And that makes the superfecta much less complicated. And I love wagers without complications.

More than 150,000 people will cram into every available space at Churchill Downs on Derby Day. CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, arriving in limos with entourages, will be breathing the same air as college kids who more than likely will never see an actual horse. It is very much a caste system with the largest bank accounts in the top levels getting the best views of the teeming masses down below by the rail or spread out (possibly passed out) in the grass of the massive infield.

The only sporting comparison to the Derby is the Olympic 100 meters, but a runner can try more than once. Horses get one chance in their lives. And if one little thing goes wrong at the start, it's usually over because recovery is so difficult.

This is not four quarters. This is 2 minutes. This is not team sports. This is horse racing. And this is just not any race. This is the Kentucky Derby.