Staying in motels on our many track trips gave us some of our funniest and craziest adventures. Our group of handicappers ranged anywhere from the three of us who went to my first Kentucky Derby to as many as eight or nine sitting in the infield enjoying the Run for the Roses. By this time, some in our party also had adult sons, who began to attend the Derby with their friends for the fun and frolic provided by an infield full of young people who were there more for the partying than the horses.
The four of us always looked for accommodations that were – let’s call them, being diplomatic, cheap. The quest to save money on places to sleep led us to some unusual motels. One year, on a trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas, we stayed in a dump on the main drag, not far from the racetrack but located behind an office building. We figured out later that night why it was so inexpensive when people kept knocking on our door looking to buy drugs. On our way home from Arkansas, we decided to stop at Louisville to see if we could find an establishment that would fit our needs for the following year’s Derby, but without the drug traffic. The demand was so high, however, that we found that even places like Motel 6 or Red Roof Inn were way beyond our means, so we decided to head home. It was then we decided to visit the Kentucky Derby Museum, which is always closed on Derby weekend. Since it was a non-racing day, we figured it would not be too crowded. It is a real treasure to explore, something I can recommend without hesitation to any racing fan.
After the museum, having still had no luck finding a motel in our price range, we began the drive home. But then it happened. At about dusk, just on the outskirts of Louisville, we saw a plain white sign board, about six feet by four feet, with a single light bulb illuminating it. All it said was MOTEL, with a red arrow pointing down a dimly lit street. No name or brand, just that word. How could we not check it out?
Turns out the place was called the Belaire Motel. It was about a mile down the street from the sign, and we found the Vacancy sign lit, so we stopped in to inquire about securing rooms for the following Derby. It was only a few hundred yards from the Interstate Highway, so the passing trucks provided a form of “white noise” said to be good for sleeping. Each room had two beds, with a nightstand between them. One room had a desk and a chair; the other was even more spartan. The ice machine was a beer cooler in the main office, and the 19-inch television got a couple of channels which were barely visible through a layer of static. The bathroom had a small shower complete with a bar of soap about as thick as a Saturday newspaper and old towels a little bigger than large hand towels. But the price was well within our budget, and our luck hadn’t changed, so how could we pass on this veritable Shangri-La? We booked the rooms for our next Derby trip.
Over the next dozen years, many of us continued to stay there, and the place did gradually improve. New 1950s-style bedspreads were added, and the place got cable, although sometimes the proprietor had to climb up a pole next to our room and hit the receiver to make it work. In later years, we learned to begin bringing our own towels and soap, but the price continued to be a wonderful Derby gift.
Our gang now had added journeys to Gulfstream Park near Fort Lauderdale in Florida, Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans, and a return to Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs. (This trip, it should be noted, did not see us staying in the drug motel behind the office building.) As time went on, we added to our running travelogue, and our collective enjoyment, with excursions to Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, New York; Belmont Park, just off the Hempstead Turnpike in Elmont, NY; and Monmouth Park in Oceanport, New Jersey.
But it was still the Derby that provided us with the most unusual gifts. On one trip, we met a young trainer who was married to a friend of mine’s niece. Thanks to them we were treated to a backside tour and saw the Downs from an entirely different perspective, a true gift for us infield spectators. They only had a few horses in their stable, but several years later, they had a horse who won a Breeders’ Cup race worth a couple of million dollars.
Another year, there was a problem getting the Daily Racing Forms for our Derby trip, due mostly to printing and distribution problems at the plant where they originated. By 9:00 the evening before the Derby we’d arrived in Kentucky to discover that none of the newsstands or convenience stores had copies of the Form were to be had anywhere. The few that had made their way to Kentucky were quickly scarfed up by locals. We looked all over town for a copy and came up completely dry, and this was long before the smartphone age. If we couldn’t lay our hands on a Form, we’d essentially be flying blind on race day – no information about the card, no Beyer figures, nothing. As we were about to give up, we saw a man come strolling out of a store with a Form in his hand. Wings on our feet, we rushed inside, only to discover that he’d purchased the last one. Recognizing us as fellow horseplayers, he seemed to sense our fate, and asked us where we were from. We told him Ohio and that we’d driven down and our problems with finding a Form.
With that, another Derby adventure began. He said his office was close by, and if we followed him in our car, he’d make a copy of the Form for us. This was somewhere in the neighborhood of forty pages of information – not a casual offer. Follow a strange guy at 10:00 pm to who knows where for the chance at a photocopy of the Form? Sure, why not? We never hesitated. We only stopped long enough to buy a 12-pack of beer, in case he actually was telling the truth. He led us on a roughly 10-minute drive through a maze of several dark office buildings and told us to park in front of a particular one. He didn’t seem like a bad guy, and we had him outnumbered, so when he unlocked his office, we followed him inside. He turned out to be a true fellow handicapper and a genial guy, to boot, and after about an hour and several beers, we left, all of us with our own bulky photocopy of the next day’s Form.
Derby gifts can come in many forms, as you can see.
And then there was the documentary. Ever dream of being in a real motion picture? Neither did we, until, one Derby afternoon, a camera crew wandering through the infield approached our group as we were preparing to bet the next race. They asked if we would explain our methods of handicapping to them on camera. We assumed they were a local TV station getting clips for the nightly report. Only later did we learn that they were making a documentary on the Derby and had been filming scenes there for several years, more or less on spec, in the hope that, once they’d finished, they’d be able to shop it around. It included segments from the previous several years on the horses, the owners, the trainers, and the celebrities in the so-called Millionaires’ Row suites. The infield crowd was the last segment they would be filming. We chatted with them for several minutes, giving them our take on going to the races, and I then excused myself to go lay my bets. As I walked through the crowd, it began to part in front of me. I was confused until I realized the camera crew was following me. The infielders must have thought I was someone important! As I stood in line to bet, the cameras finished with me and headed off toward another group. Our guys laughed at the experience, and even though he took down our names, the director said he had no idea if we would survive his editing, or, for that matter, if the project would ever be aired. That was the highlight of our trip that year and the main topic of discussion on the ride home.
About a year later, the night before the Derby, I happened to be channel surfing and landed on our local Cleveland PBS station, and I heard my own voice coming from the TV. The director had in fact sold his movie to PBS, and that movie, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’: Tales of the Kentucky Derby, was showing that evening across the country on every PBS station. We had, in fact, survived the cut: the director included the segment of our group talking, plus the one of me making a wager. To our surprise, our names were even included in the credits. The movie was only available for a short time at PBS and at DRF (Daily Racing Form) Press. Amazon was then in its infancy, and in 1997 there wasn’t much Internet coverage, but I did manage to get a VHS copy (younger readers might have to look that up). The movie won some kind of award, the name of which escapes me at the moment, and no less a racing eminence than legendary track writer Bill Nack called it “the best, most absorbing racing documentary” he’d ever seen. I recently found the full film on YouTube, if you’re so inclined and have an hour to kill.
But my most personal and treasured gift came a few years later, and not at the Derby itself. My daughter in law’s mother stunned me with a truly fabulous gift: a handmade, full-sized quilt made out of old Derby t-shirts that my son had bought over the years he’d attended the race with me. She also included a piece of fabric depicting Horse of Year and Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. The stitching that she used throughout the quilt were outlines of horses, and it was double-sided, with different Derby shirts on the back as well. I have no idea how long it took to make this work of art, but the quilt, the time, and the love it took to make, combine to ensure it will always hold a special place in my heart.
The Kentucky Derby has provided me with wonderful gifts over the years – truly once-in-a-lifetime experiences – but being able to share trips to the Downs with my son will always be among the highlights of my life.
(Below are a few photos of the amazing Derby quilt. Click to enlarge.)