There was a time when Churchill Downs merely declared that the Kentucky Derby crowd was in excess of 100,000 and let it go at that. Now each body is carefully counted, just as the dollars are, and the roses and the julep glasses and this year's TV celebrities, and even the traditions. They have made the Kentucky Derby into formalized, certified, organized Americana.
As a rule, stay clear of anything that is called a festival. If you have to name something a festival, it is not. The Kentucky Derby, God help us, is now part of the Derby Festival, a cliché wrapped in a promotion. "Kentucky Derby" is a registered trademark and would surely be franchised if they could find a way to put ketchup on it. The Kentucky Derby is the feature race on Saturday of Derby Week, but there are other spectacular festival-type things going on: the Pegasus Parade, the Great Steamboat Race, the Fashion Fair, the Derby Ball, crowning the Derby Queen and, for that matter, Derby Days down at the K-Mart. What once was just Friday is now Derby Eve. That's another thing. By and large it is prudent to steer clear of eves.
The governor of Kentucky, Wendell Ford, stood up at a Derby Week dinner last festival time and made an observation. What he said, seriously, word for word, was, "The 100th Kentucky Derby will be the greatest thing that ever happened on the face of the United States." Imagine a grown man going around telling people things like that. Only because the Derby itself is truly special can it suffer such nonsense, survive and prosper.
Becoming formalized, certified, organized Americana has squeezed out some of the Derby's best juices, but it remains wonderfully original, raucous and ebullient. The kids cram together in the infield, sail Frisbees, sun themselves, smoke some grass and do approximately what they would be doing anyplace else. The main difference between the kids and the rich and famous adults in the Millionaires Row boxes is that the kids have a great time and" can't see the race while those in Millionaires Row have a great time and can see the race.
Two things that should never be taken too seriously are horse races and politicians. Always keep in mind (especially you, Governor Ford) that most of the stable workers appear more interested in the race run right after the Derby, than in the greatest thing that ever happened on the face of the United States. This is because they believe, as an article of faith, that the race after the Derby is always fixed. See what the boys in the back room will have.
But we come to praise the Run for the Roses. Under the twin spires, in the aura of the bluegrass spring, any good man will cloud up when they play My Old Kentucky Home and cry outright when he realizes he is standing in one of those rare places where beauty and history bisect for an instant. He'll order a julep or two—not minding that it is corny—and salute a hundred Derbies past and a hundred more ahead.
The names of the past winners of the race are all around the place, and there is a plethora of statistics covering absolutely everything, from Aristides, who ran first in the first Derby, to Warbucks, who finished last in the last one. What follows here is something else: the informal, unofficial, non-festival memories of a few men who were part of the Derby at one time or another. Men just talking about their Derbies, plus selected short subjects.
Sip a julep along. But not that profane festival beverage that is thrown together by men who have on their shelves bottled mixes for banana daiquiris. Remember that when Irvin S. Cobb heard that H. L. Mencken constructed his drink with Maryland whiskey and crushed mint, he warned, "Any guy who'd put rye in a mint julep and crush the leaves would put scorpions in a baby's bed."
There is only one proper way to compose a mint julep, and it was outlined by a gentleman named J. Soule Smith a century ago. His recipe begins: "Take from the cold spring some water, pure as the angels are...."
Sometimes, lacking the absolute essentials, you must make do. Surely that is why, despite intrusions from a mundane world, the Run for the Roses probably gets better all the time. Weep no more, my lady.
Sitting among carefully tabulated memories kept on file cards is a tall, thin man chain-smoking Pall Malls. His desk, piled high with stud books, once belonged to a president of Churchill Downs; he was named after the owner of a Derby winner, S. S. Brown (Agile, 1905). Brownie Leach was raised in the bluegrass, playing as a child in a backyard that once was Henry Clay's. He is returning the favor by writing a book about Marse Henry and his two great broodmares.
No one possesses a more intimate knowledge of the Downs and the Derby than Brownie Leach. He worked closely with Matt Winn, the fabled Kentucky Colonel who made himself and the Derby national institutions. In the Colonel's last years Brownie Leach was his PR man and aide-de-camp at Churchill Downs, or as Kentuckians always pronounce it, Churchle.
The racing writer Joe H. Palmer once noted, "Mr. Leach has a great respect for the truth, and uses it sparingly," but that wry encomium refers only to the tall tales he scatters with his bourbon. Mr. Leach, who is fiercely loyal to the late Colonel Winn, wants only to set the record straight, as he sees it. He also holds some opinions:
"If all the Derby winners raced each other, I'd spend an awful long time down there in the paddock looking at Whirlaway and Count Fleet, but I believe I'd go then and put my money on Twenty Grand. If you had just seen him that day in 1931. Why, he came around that last turn as far off the rail as we are from that hedge over there, and rolling like a freight train coming down the mountain with the brakes off. All you hear now is Secretariat. Listen, I'd love to have a stableful of Secretariats, but if you just look at the record you'd-see he couldn't carry Man o' War's blanket.
"I probably sound like an old grouch, but sports can be so phony today, just as bad as the food and the cars now—and my God, you can't get a plain white cotton shirt anywhere in the country but Brooks Brothers anymore. Racing simply has no regard for its past. Everybody is going around writing that the Derby was not a top race in its earlier years. Will somebody besides me just once look at the record? When you have men like the Dwyer brothers shipping in a Hindoo , it is a top race. It was only later it ran into snags, which is why the Loolville people hired Col. Winn. That was 1902, but he didn't really get it back on top till 1915, when H. P. Whitney brought Regret in. The Colonel gave a great deal of credit to that race, but I'd say his favorite Derby was Exterminator's, although a lot of that had to do with Exterminator's subsequent record. Anytime you like something, anything good that happens later that's related to it makes it seem all the better.
"Col. Winn was the boss. That was his nature. He had a good sense of humor, but he was not the kind of man you could put your arm around. He had a certain reserve, even a severity, and a lot of people at Churchle were scared to death of him. It was true that if you made a mistake he would fuss at you, but he was a fair man and a gentleman of the first water.
"Winn became a colonel on the governor of Kentucky's staff back when they had very few of those, when it was an honor. It wasn't until some governor in the '30s that they started giving those things out wholesale. This lady called me up once and told me they were going to make me a colonel, and I said, 'I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't. It's gotten so there is more distinction in not being a Kentucky colonel than in being one.'
"Col. Winn had an apartment in the Waldorf Towers in New York. He went to all the resorts as a guest, not hustling and scuffling like some promotion man. But once he set down to talk he started selling himself and his race. Toward the end he did get to become a hero to himself, but he wasn't overbearing about it. Through that last part of his life, the Derby was all he thought about, night and day.
"Earlier, he ran I think it was 11 different racetracks, all over. Why the only thing that kept Churchle going in the Depression was Latonia, the old Latonia. Latonia paid the bills that kept the Derby going during the Depression. A lot of people in Loolville have conveniently forgotten that. Winn knew everything about everybody in Loolville. He once read me chapter and verse on everybody in the city. He told me it would be helpful for me and Churchle when he was gone, knowing these things. You're damn right they were unsavory. That was the point.
"The Colonel knew everybody everywhere. There were very few outstanding people in the country he was not friendly with. I knew his thinking: you get the ladies and gentlemen, and the ordinary people will beat the doors down to get in. From 1920 through the Second World War, anybody who was anybody—social leaders, business leaders, political leaders—were at the Derby. They say they get 130,000 now, but who are these people?
"The Colonel made the Derby class. He wouldn't allow anybody to put a company name on their box. I don't care if you were General Mills or Dun & Bradstreet. When he hired me, he said, 'Brownie, you are now working for the biggest sports event in the country, and maybe the world—and you are to go first-class. People are not going to see the man from the Kentucky Derby being cheap. You have an unlimited expense account when it comes to the Derby. But, Brownie, there's nobody faster at throwing money away than me—I've spent a lifetime doing it—so I'll know if you're just throwing it away.'
"One of my main jobs was to stop everybody from just sitting around in his office. Everybody knew him, so they would come by and he would give them a drink, which would warm them up, and then they would overstay. The Colonel would have a bourbon along with them, but he had instructed this old colored fellow to give him just a quarter of an ounce, just enough to color it. After a while I would come in and tell the Colonel that so-and-so was on the phone, very important.
"He worked hard to get the Derby on the sports pages, but he never bowed and scraped to the press the way some of them did afterward. He was not easily impressed. About the first day I came to work, he gave me two letters to answer. One was from Barney Gimbel asking if he couldn't get another box for the Derby. The other was from some little old lady from Indiana who was up in her 70s. She said she expected she didn't have much longer, and that if she should go to heaven and St. Peter asked her if she had ever seen the Kentucky Derby, she would be very embarrassed to have to say she had not.
"Winn said, 'Brownie, you write Barney Gimbel I haven't got another box I can give him, and then you send this old lady from Indiana two tickets with my compliments.'
"He believed that the Derby belonged to the people. The way it used to be around here, the oldtimers would take chairs out and set 'em up on the street the morning of Derby Day and watch the cars stream through to Loolville. It was a big time. The Colonel often said that New York or Los Angeles, a place like that, couldn't have the Derby. It would get swallowed up there. Here the Derby was everything. We'd put up $120,000, and down here that was like we were giving away Long Island.
"But you see, the Colonel had great care. He was a showman and he sold the Derby, but he cared for it, too. His major concern for the Derby was making it bigger year by year and having nice people come to it. He would change the flower beds every year. I can see him now, standing out there, studying the beds by the hour. He told me that if people were going to keep on coming to the Derby, losing their money, he didn't want them seeing the same thing every year. But now, except for minor innovations, the beds haven't been changed for years.
"I think the Derby is a cinch to blow up if they keep getting further away from the Colonel and keep running it just to make money."
Plain Ben Jones and his son Jimmy brought 14 colts to the Derby in 12 different years, from 1938, when Lawrin won, until 1958, when Tim Tarn did. Eleven of the 14 finished first or second. In all, the Joneses had eight wins, three seconds, a third and two fifths. In 1948 they finished one-two with Citation and Coaltown.
There has never been anyone else who could bring a horse to a peak for the Derby the way the Joneses did. Officially, Plain Ben was credited with the first six winners, Jimmy with the last two. Actually it was always a joint venture, even after Plain Ben retired. It was like a treasure map, half of which each had swallowed.
Plain Ben died in 1961, but Jimmy, who has not trained for a decade, is still active in racing. He wears tassel shoes and everybody at the track calls him Mister Jones now, which means he is an owner. He is watching the races from a box seat as he talks:
"The first Derby I saw was 1917, which Omar Khayyam won. I sat on the top of a paddock shed. At one time or other I've sat just about everywhere at the Derby.
"Around that time, there was only about two places still racing in America, Kentucky and Maryland. Old Hughes was on the Supreme Court, and they had just about thrown racing out. It was so bad my father had to breed some of his thoroughbreds to make work horses out of them.
"We ran mostly out of the country: Mexico, Cuba, Canada in the summer. We were running some horses at Juarez when Pancho Villa took the town. They shipped me north across the river when they heard he was coming, but I came right back. I can still remember all the dead Mexicans laying in the streets. Pancho Villa's men came out to the racetrack and they were taking all the black horses. I guess they figured to make a black-horse escadrille. The best horse my father had was named Lemon Joe, and he was black. So Dad wrapped an old sack filled with mud around one of his legs and then bandaged it over, so that Lemon Joe appeared to have a bad limp. So they left him and took his saddle.
"The Derby was very important, even then. It was especially big in the Midwest. A lot of the crowd was down from Chicago. Of course, by the same token, I can remember my father planning all summer to go into the Sioux City Derby. We considered that a very important race.
"My father was raised up there in the cow country of Missouri, but all he ever wanted was horses. I was galloping horses when I was nine years old. It became a way of life, horses, you might say. My father was a natural at it, but he was a peculiar fellow. I never in all my life ever saw him cleaning out a stall or working on a bad leg, things like that. As I say, he was just a natural at it.
"I never imagined we would ever get to a Derby, much less win one. The thing is, you must set up stepping-stones to it. And I like to run a horse before a big crowd. It's a psychological thing. Many horses are not ready for the big Derby crowd. And, of course, many horses are overready. The trainers don't leave a race in them. I'm trying to remember now, but I can't think of one horse we ever ran in the Derby that didn't run at least as well as we expected. And the ones you don't expect to win are probably the most satisfying—Lawrin, Ponder, Iron Liege.
"But I would have to say that Citation was the most exciting, because we ran one-two, which hadn't been done since Colonel Bradley, and not since, either. There was a personal satisfaction too, because I had Citation myself out East while my father had Coaltown. Coaltown was kind of a sickly horse as a 2-year-old. I thought he was dying one time in Chicago, but he got good in the winter in Florida, and then he started breaking records and was undefeated coming into the Derby while Citation had two losses.
"But you could explain both those losses. As a 2-year-old, our filly Bewitched beat him. I believe at that moment she was ground up a little finer, and I told the jockeys I didn't want the horses beat up. Then a few weeks before the Derby, Saggy beat him in the mud up at Havre de Grace. Now I don't want to take anything away from Saggy—he comes from a good mud family—but that was a phony race. It was the first time Arcaro rode Citation, and I told him, 'Eddie, don't thump him and bump him all around. I want to keep the flesh on him.' This was one of those stepping-stones I mentioned to you. And he got caught on the outside of some horse—I can't remember his name but it had five letters—and by the time he got clear it was too late to go after Saggy without whipping him all up.
"But these losses are why a lot of the Kentucky people couldn't understand why we were even bringing Citation in. They said, 'Jimmy, all's you gonna see is that little brown horse's behind.' I said, 'Well, you can call me an imbecile if that happens.'
"But I'll tell you, that talk scared Arcaro. He had chosen the wrong horse in an entry for the Derby once before, the time he took Devil Diver and runs out and Shut Out wins it. Arcaro had just recently got on Citation, too. Albert Snider had been riding him, and Citation ran just like greased lightning for him, but, unfortunately, after he wins the Flamingo, Snider goes fishing in the Keys and a storm blows up and drowns him.
"So I called Arcaro, and he said, 'Jimmy, I'm sorry, but I've promised Ben Whitaker I would ride his horse in the Derby.' Horse named My Request. I said, 'Eddie, My Request is a fine horse, but Citation is a different kind of horse.' So he comes down to Havre de Grace and rides him and finds this out. But then down in Loolville he hears all this talk about Coaltown, and he comes over to me and says, 'Are you sure I'm on the right horse?' I said, 'Don't you worry. You're on the right horse.'
"Both my father and I felt sure Citation would knock hell out of Coaltown, though my father was hoping he was wrong. It would have been a little more satisfying for him to tie Derby Dick Thompson's record [four winners] with the one he had been handling himself.
"But what we really wanted was first and second, so we told Arcaro, now don't press Coaltown too early because we want him to have enough left for second. We talked about this so much, Eddie got a little dreamy. Down the backstretch Coaltown was stealing away four-five-six lengths. But finally he slapped him a coupla times and Citation went past him in a sixteenth of a mile and then galloped, and Coaltown had plenty left to beat My Request.
"We raced the two together only one other time. We made a sprinter out of Coaltown. Citation went on to win the Triple Crown and to be the first horse to make a million dollars, but to this day there are still a lot of people down there who think we pulled Coaltown.
"Citation's time was slow in the Derby, but it was sloppy that day, a real mess, and it was a much deeper track then. We had set the record with Whirlaway in '41. He won by eight lengths. When you see a horse set a record off by himself like that, you know you've got something. You see a horse set a record in a tight finish, it means a whole bunch of them have run fast, so it is probably the track. They changed the track at Churchle Downs in the summer of '56. They went over to Douglas Park because they were going to tear it down, and a lot of the horsemen thought it was a better surface than Churchle, so they skimmed the dirt and brought it over.
"Now I've been around dirt all my life, and it has a peculiar quality. It takes several years for dirt to meld, to get together. When Tim Tarn won in 1958, it was raining and it was like racing in chewing gum, but by the time Decidedly broke the record in '62 the soil had gotten together. A couple years later the track began to get a little wavy, so they rebuilt it again, and now you sprinkle a little water on it and it's like a pavement.
"The best Derby of them all may have been '57, and it was the first winner I actually saddled myself. That was the vintage Derby: Bold Ruler, Gallant Man, Round Table, and we had to scratch Gen. Duke out of it, before Hartack wins it with Iron Liege. I guess, taken as a whole, you've got to say that was the finest group that ever ran.
"I had great luck with Hartack. He could really ride a finish. He didn't have the best judgment, I don't think, and he wasn't pretty riding, but from the eighth pole you wanted him on your horse. I'll tell you how he won that Derby. Iron Liege was a funny horse. Most all horses like to run on the outside, but Iron Liege was stupid out there. Yet on the inside he was a champion. He never got beat there. Well, Hartack placed him on the inside and held him there, and when he came around that last corner he just started jingling those other horses to death.
"It's not an exact science, you know. You just try to fix it so they might come up their best at 5:30 that afternoon in Loolville."
In the tidy house, down a side street in Hollywood, Fla., five minutes from Gulfstream, the little man sits alone with his mother, who is hard-of-hearing, and a tiny old dog who has gone blind with age. Since the little man has had five ulcers and three-fourths of his stomach removed, he must be careful, too, so now he is only sipping sweet fruit wine.
He has just turned 60. His mother is 82, but aside from the deafness she is undiminished, and she is sitting at the dining-room table, dealing solitaire. Behind her, when the little man utters a mild profanity or while he briefly tells of sowing wild oats in New Orleans when he was a teen-ager, 45 years ago, he drops his voice, lest his mother have revealed to her, at 82, these flaws in his character.
It is hard to believe that this fellow, so charming and sentimental, was once Don Meade, the scourge of the tracks, the jockey who invented the behavior that Bill Hartack later copyrighted. For a time Don Meade was the best jockey in the land, maybe in the whole world, but he came too fast from the backwoods scrub of South Dakota, and he never learned to lay off. Finally, everybody—trainers, owners, stewards—just said to hell with it; nobody, no matter how good, is worth that much aggravation. "He couldn't be told nothing," an old trainer recalls. "That S.O.B. knew who the Unknown Soldier was."
Times are not so palmy for Meade now—although he is not complaining, mind you. The stomach operation has hung him up; the only horse he has to train is the one he owns. His wife is in the hospital with a broken neck from an automobile accident; a son is busted up in another hospital from a motorcycle accident. But Donnie Jr. is the top rider in New England, and there are five good kids, all grown now, all initialed DLM, all bearing a greater resemblance to their mother, which the father counts as a distinct blessing. Mrs. Meade was a Copa show girl when he met her. He calls her "Madame Queen" on account of "she must be a queen to put up with me for 29 years."
He is still sure and cocky; maybe if you are only five feet tall and out of South Dakota you never figure you're far enough ahead. But the brazen kid who won the 1933 Derby, the most turbulent of them all, has been overhauled. That day, Meade, a teen-age man-child with a puckish comic-strip face and the educated hands of a second-story man, rode Col. E.R. Bradley's Brokers Tip to victory, hand-fighting Jockey Herb Fisher on Head Play down the stretch. Few in the stands noticed the skirmish and the track stewards would not consider the claim of foul by Fisher, who left for the jocks' room in tears.
Although Meade and Fisher barely knew each other at the time, their notorious shared moment joined them in perhaps the most symbiotic relationship in sports. Only Don Meade can appreciate what Herb Fisher has had to put up with. Meade knows that almost every day someone will ask him about the '33 Derby. It is a tedious imposition but, as Meade points out, at least he won the race. Herb Fisher has to endure it, too, and he lost.
Fisher lives only a few miles from Meade. While he was not as talented a rider, Fisher has had more success as a trainer. But here it is the 100th Derby, and all anybody asks him about is the Derby he lost 41 years ago.
The phone rings at Herb Fisher's house. He picks it up and listens dutifully, and then answers quite firmly—not rudely, but with sufficient edge to inform the caller that he feels intruded upon. "Do we have to always dredge up these memories?" he asks. "They're gone. I don't want to live back there. My remarks have been on the record for 40 years, and I'm sure there's nothing to add now."
"You can understand what he goes through, can't you?" Meade asks solicitously, in Fisher's behalf. He is concerned for Fisher, which is part of the burden of having won. Talking of himself, Meade says:
"I still weigh 109. I never had any weight trouble. When I was 12 years old I started riding quarter horses, 50¢ a race, $2 if you won, down at the bush tracks in Nebraska, and I was really in demand because you got catch weights there, and I only weighed 48 pounds. I left home at 13. I really had no one to tell me what to do. I had to make my own way, so I just grew up fast. I broke my maiden out in Vancouver when I was 16. July 5, 1930. By that winter, that's 1930-31, I was the leading rider in New Orleans.
"I was patterning my style then after Laverne Fator. He was the greatest rider ever. I don't care who they say, he was the best. I was just on my way then, like a young DiMaggio coming in, but Fator was going out, drinking. We were riding together in Maryland, the fall of '32, and he had a mount for Col. Bradley in the last race one day. It was a nothing race, a stumblebum race, but it was the reason I won the Derby the next year. Because Fator was drinking, and he couldn't ride, and they put me up, and that's how I started riding for Col. Bradley.
"Now here was a great man. What else can I say? He was a great man. He gave away $200 in tens to racetrack bums every day of his life. These guys would line up and he'd give 'em each a ten as he left the track. Christmas, everybody in his stable would get a big bonus. It would start at the lowest, with the hot-walkers getting something like a hundred. Remember, this is the Depression. That's like a thousand today. He gave me $5,500 when I won the Derby and that was enough for me to get my whole family, my mother and all my brothers and sisters, out of South Dakota to California. And I had some left over. Listen, you could cabaret all night for $20 then.
"I'll tell you what kind of a man Col. Bradley was. He ran the best gambling place in Palm Beach, and in the summer he'd bring his whole kitchen up from Palm Beach to Saratoga. I'd come in from exercising the first set around 6:30, and they'd be serving creamed quail on toast. You'd never know who was going to be there—Jim Farley, Elliott Roosevelt, the President's son, Winston Churchill. The Colonel knew everybody.
"He named all his horses starting with B, and he had another horse coming up to the Derby in '33 named Boilermaker, who was considered the better choice for a while, but he was a speed burner, and Brokers Tip was the one I liked even though he was a maiden. He had only one race that year before the Derby, but a few days before the race we took him out and did the mile and a quarter with the full 126. And he did it in 2:06.2. So after that I knew I had a winner. I called my mother up in South Dakota and I told her I was going to win. She'll remember that. Mother. Hey, Mother. Listen, listen. Remember I called you up right before the Derby?"
"Yes, yes, I heard it on the radio."
"No, before the Derby, Mother. Remember what I told you when I called you up before the Derby?"
"You said you were so happy to be riding for Col. Bradley, and—"
"No, no, not that. Don't you remember I said I'd win the Derby? Remember, I told you I would win."
"Mmmm. Oh yes."
"You see, I knew before the race I would win, off that work. The Colonel scratched Boilermaker, but even then we went off at 8 to 1. If Bradley hadn't owned him he would have been 50 to 1.
"The track was off, and it was deep, but it wasn't raining. Dick Thompson was the trainer, but he didn't tell me a whole lot. He was good at letting you ride the race. These guys who tell you to lay third. What if five other trainers tell their riders to lay third?
"Anyway, I started way outside, and he had no speed. We only had one horse beat at the first turn. I had brought him over, though, and I stayed about 10 feet off the rail the whole way around. The track was too deep in any closer, and if I had tried to go around a field that size, I wouldn't have had any chance. But I got through every horse on the inside, and by the time we got to the head of the stretch the only two ahead of me were Head Play and Charley O, who was trying to make a move on the outside. Then he fell back, and I moved up alongside Head Play. And this is where it all happened. Fisher came over on me, and I know if he gets me closer to that heavy footing on the rail, I ain't going to be in the hunt, so I reach out and push him off, and he reaches back at me, and boom-boom, that's it." Meade sits back and takes another sip from the glass of the sweet fruit wine.
Wait a minute. Hold on. What do you mean "Boom-boom, that's it"?
"Well, it was all so fast. It's all just a matter of seconds. It was just a natural reaction. It didn't occur to me at that time what race it was. It was just another race, so when Head Play came over on me I pushed him off, and then Fisher reacted. It did get a little wilder as we went along. At one point he didn't even have hold of his reins. He was trying to hold me with one hand and hit me with the other, with the whip. I had the best hold, and I never let loose."
Five years ago, in an interview, Fisher stated, "He grabbed my saddlecloth, and I went to the whip, and then we more or less drug Brokers Tip a quarter of a mile." This is a glossy accounting, but it squares with the tenor of the remark Fisher made as he went to the showers after the race, still sobbing. "He beat me out of it," he cried then. While there is no question that both were guilty of rough stuff, it is also well documented that Fisher brought it on by letting his mount come in on Brokers Tip, just as he had the horse go out on Charley O seconds before.
But curiously, perhaps nobly, Meade volunteers that he was really the one at fault. "I think if it were any other race but the Derby and I was riding for anyone else but Col. Bradley, they would have taken me down," he says.
But Fisher lugged in on you.
"I shoved him away with my hands." He shrugs and takes another sip of the wine. He beat Herb Fisher when it counted; he has no mind to take any part in doing it again.
"After the ceremonies, I walked into the jocks' room, and Fisher came at me. He had one of those bootjacks made of that hard wood. Have they still got those wooden poles there in the jocks' room? Well, I happened to be right by this one pole and I ducked, and that bootjack put a dent in that pole you could still see for years. So they gave us both 30 days for the riding, and they gave Herb an extra five for starting the fight.
"This meant neither one of us could ride in the Preakness, which was just as good for me since Head Play won by 10 lengths and Brokers Tip finished 10th. He never won another race. The Derby was his one race, and that was it.
"I never saw much of Fisher. He rode mostly out of Chicago and I was in New York. The few times we did see each other, we wouldn't talk. Never said a word to each other. Then, in 1965, at the dinner when they took Jackie Wes-trope into the Jockeys Hall of Fame at Pimlico, Sonny Workman came over and he said it was all in the past and time we made up. And so we did. We shook hands and talked for a while, and then a few minutes later Herb came back over and asked Madame Queen to dance, and when he took her out on the dance floor, you could hear everyone saying, "Look, the Hatfields and McCoys have made up. The Hatfields and McCoys have made up.'
"Of course, it still comes up all the time, and I know it'll be worse than ever this year with the 100th. You understand what Herb has to go through? You understand that?"
Far from a soft Kentucky May, fresh snow covers the ground and the tart morning air cuts clean. Hollie Hughes, 86 years old, waits with his horses in a stable, as he has on 25,000 other mornings in his life. He first came to the San-ford Stud when he was a boy, when Grover Cleveland was President, the second time, of course. In 1905, when he was 17, he started working for Sanford. He has been training for Sanford going on 60 years. He won the Derby for Sanford in 1916 with a black colt named George Smith.
Hollie Hughes is not the oldest Derby survivor. An ancient chap in Louisville even claims, vaguely, dubiously, to have seen the first one in 1875. But in a special way Hollie Hughes' antiquity counts most because he is still doing precisely what he was doing on May 13, 1916: he is training horses for Sanford Stud. Most people are ravaged by time, but Mr. Hughes seems only to have been jostled. "They say I've got the blood pressure of a 12-year-old," he exclaims, more with wonder than pride, in a voice full and resonant. His eyes are especially vivid, since there are no glasses to get in the way. Against the cold this morning he wears an overcoat, a fedora and a pair of rubbers. His main ally is what purports to be an electric heater; it has skyrocketed the tack-room temperature to a point slightly above the freezing mark.
There are moments when Mr. Hughes can be somewhat disconcerting; passing references to "the '40s" or " '51" turn out to mean the 1840s and 1851. But there is no ambiguity when he talks about his Derby. The chart of the race suggests that the second-place finisher. Star Hawk, was the better horse, and a news report of the day was more explicit: "Star Hawk was left at the barrier...and Jockey Lilley took him into every pocket he could find." Hollie Hughes will have none of that. He thinks history has shortchanged George Smith, his Derby winner:
"I lived about a mile from the Sanford Farm, in Amsterdam, N. Y. The farm's been going about a hundred years now. General Sanford started it, although he was never a general. It was just that he went to West Point back when Grant and what's-his-name—right, Lee—when Grant and Lee were going there, so they called him General.
"The farm was 28 miles from Saratoga, and when we first started we used to walk the horses the 28 miles over there to run them. I did anything to be done at the time; I wasn't particular. Then I was foreman, and the training thing just developed along. They engaged me to be trainer in the middle of the Saratoga meeting of 1914.
"We bought George Smith as a 2-year-old the next year, 1915. He had been racing up in Canada and had been winning everything up there. I say everything because he had won every race. Then we raced him once that fall, down at Laurel in October, and when he won that we began to think, hell, this horse might win the Derby. The Derby was coming along then. Mr. Whitney had won it that year with Regret.
"So we shipped George Smith down to Charleston. The last year they had racing down there was 1913, and this was '15, but there were quite a number of stables wintering there. Col. Bradley had his horses there. A.K. Macomber was the other big stable. He had married Myrtle Harkness. That's where the money came from: her father was one of the original Standard Oil people. Walter Jennings trained for Mr. Macomber, and we got to be great pals. He would kid me about what this horse he had would do to my black horse in the Derby. Yes, this horse of his would be Star Hawk.
"We shipped early in April from Charleston and raced George Smith late in April at the old Lexington track. This was the only race he had as a 3-year-old before the Derby. It was a mile and a sixteenth. A nice mare named Bayberry Candle beat him, but he was giving her 21 pounds on the scale. And we were just trying to help the horse. They don't give a damn now. Put the money up, before Christmas, after Christmas, and they'll be there, running.
"Then we went over to Louisville. The Derby was run on the 13th that year, I'm pretty sure. But you can look that up. George Smith was coming up to it well. He trained real easy. He was a rather rangy sort, a magnificent type of horse to go a distance of ground. He was a perfect-mannered horse, too, no more trouble than a pet cat. Most people think he was named after Pittsburgh Phil because that happened to be Pittsburgh Phil's real name, George Smith. But this is not the case. He was named by a fellow named Eddie McBride, who comes from Baltimore, where he peddled ice, and when he had the horse he named him for a friend of his up in Canada. I never met this George Smith, not even after we won the Derby. He just never appeared.
"George Smith was a complete failure when Mr. San-ford put him to stud, so nobody ever hears of him. This is a shame. The last race he ever ran was the Bowie Handicap in 1918, the fall he was a 5-year-old. He carried 130, and Omar Khayyam, who had won the Derby the year before, carried 115, and Exterminator, who had won it that year, carried 120, and George Smith beat the both of them. You'd have to check those weights to make sure that's absolutely correct, but that's approximately the way it was. He beat the both of them, giving 10 and 15 pounds.
"But don't listen to me about George Smith. The year he was a 4-year-old Pres Burch had him, and he still says, 'He's the best horse I ever trained.' The best. That's all right, you go ahead and quote him. You don't have to go see Pres. He's told me that enough. 'The best horse I ever trained.' He had George Smith that year because I was in the Army. I was in what they called a Field Resort Squadron, which meant that we were supposed to go out in the middle of the battle and replace horses that had been shot.
"Well, the last night out before we landed at Le Havre, we stayed up playing poker all night. You couldn't open any windows, and with all the smoke, what a headache I had in the morning when we docked. So I get off the boat in Le Havre feeling like hell, and all the people in town are running around shouting, 'Fin la guerre, fin la guerre.' And I said, 'What does that mean?' And they said, 'The war just ended.' And I said, 'That suits me.' I had landed the day the war ended.
"But before that, the Derby year. It was a beautiful day, the 13th. The center field was full of people then, too, although nothing was so organized then. Nobody was looking out for me just because I had a horse in the Derby, but this tobacco man had a box, and he saw me standing there. I think he knew I had a horse. He said, 'Where you gonna sit?' I hadn't thought of that. I guess I thought I was going to stand, and I said so. And he said, 'Well, why don't you sit with me?' And I said, 'I'll accept your invitation.' So that was where I saw the Derby.
"We had Johnny Loftus up and there was no better rider. He had been on George Smith down at Lexington, too, so he knew the horse. I told Loftus not to make much use of him early, and then to let him go along from about the three-eighths pole. Now you don't pin a rider like Loftus down, but that was just about what happened. George Smith was near the outside, and he came out of the webbing and settled in easily and came to the lead around the three-eighths pole.
"Now the Macomber horse was coming from far back and was closing on George Smith down the stretch. But here's the thing. Loftus had so much confidence, he was just sitting on my horse. He knew the horse he had under him. George Smith only won by a neck, but that didn't mean anything, because Loftus was just so confident he was only sitting on him.
"When I got down to the track, the first man I spoke to was Charles Grainger, who was the president of Churchill Downs, and I believe he had been mayor of Louisville, too. You can look that up. And Mr. Grainger said to me, 'If Loftus had gotten this horse beaten today, he never would have ridden another race.'
"Mr. Grainger could see that George Smith was so much the better horse. And he was right. The Macomber horse never amounted to anything after that. But make no mistake, horsewise, it took just as much of a horse to win the Derby then as now. Horsewise.
"Then we had the presentation. George Smith won $9,750, and I got 10% of that. Ten percent of $9,750 was a lot of money to me then. It doesn't sound like much but it was a lot of money at that time.
"I never was in another Derby. The year George Smith went to stud I was down in Lexington—I had some mares over there—and I came over to see the Derby with my old friend, Snapper Garrison.-It was the last one I ever saw.
"A few years later I had a horse named Snob, and I told Mr. Sanford we ought to put him in the Derby because he might win. But Mr. Sanford could be a peculiar man. He said, 'I have won one Derby. I have no desire to win any other.' So I never had any reason to go back."
Colonel Winn: The biggest sports event in the U.S., maybe the world.
Ben Jones: He was a natural at it.
Hollie Hughes: He kidded about what he'd do to my black horse.
Don Meade: He grabbed my saddlecloth, and I went to the whip.