In 1961, a relatively unknown horse trainer named Jack Price came to Louisville from Cleveland with a horse named Carry Back. It was his wife's horse and Price had a particular race in mind for him. "I said, 'It's only the eighth race, the first Saturday in May.' At that time, I meant it," Price says. That race was, is and always has been the Kentucky Derby. Carry Back won.
He went on to win the Preakness and more than a million dollars before retiring at the age of 5, ultimately living on a magnificent stud farm Jack and Katherine Price purchased in Ocala, Fla. In a sport steeped in sentiment and tradition, Carry Back became a legend. So did Jack Price. Not many people referred to this race as the eighth on Saturday.
At the annual turf writers' dinner Thursday night, they applauded Price and his wife. This is a sport that remembers winners and treasures its history. They gave out awards to two newspapermen who have been covering this race for 50 years.
At the head table were two former jockeys, Don Meade and Herb Fisher, who rode against each other 50 years ago in what became known as "the fighting finish." It was a brutal, whip-slashing confrontation: The picture in the press box at Churchill Downs shows the jockeys trying to knock each other out of their saddles as they head toward the finish line. Meade's horse won, but both were suspended for 30 days for rough riding.
They didn't speak for 30 years. Now they live within a mile of each other in Florida. When they went to the podium to speak, they hugged each other, two small, older men who could have killed themselves or each other to win this race. "We're good friends now," Meade said.
The purse that day was $48,925. Tomorrow, the winning colt will earn $426,000 plus the millions in syndication that he will be worth as a stallion. One of the horses running for the prize is Pax in Bello, owned by Arnold and Christine Willcox of Bethesda. The colt has won $262,555, making him the eighth leading money winner in a 20-horse field, in which eligibility is determined by earnings. He is the first horse the Willcoxes have ever entered in the Derby. Two years ago, the Willcoxes had a colt who looked like a Derby horse, but he was injured in the Florida Derby.
Christine Willcox inherited a few horses from her father, Breckenridge Long, an assistant secretary of state during World War I. She and her husband became actively involved in racing and breeding in the early '60s. That involvement has grown in the past decade, and Arnold Willcox, an engineer and investor, now describes himself as a horse breeder. "We're excited to have a colt we bred ourselves be good enough to be in the Derby," Christine Willcox says.
"They'll eat you out of house and home," Arnold Willcox says, but "the fascination of it is that you might have a horse run in the Derby. There are 30,000 born a year, and only 20 of them get in the Derby."
Tuesday's Louisville Times devoted a huge article to the various celebrities going to the race and the parties that people are giving. Former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter will be here and so will Vice President Bush and his wife.
It's a spectacle," Jack Price says. "It's not a horse race. It's a happening." The media coverage comes close to Super Bowl scale. ABC will use 24 cameras to cover this one horse race and has set up six trailers outside the clubhouse for its crews. At dawn yesterday, dozens of reporters were at the track watching the horses prepare for the race.
Jack Price was there, too. "The Kentucky Derby is an entree when you're shooting for the top," Price says. "Whether you stay there or not depends on you."
His horse, Carry Back, died March 24 of cancer. "I kept him alive for a few months, as long as he wasn't suffering. He was enjoying life so much," Price says. "I did more for Carry Back than people do for their own parents.
"He was such a tremendous competitor," he says. "There was no horse that beat him that he didn't come back and beat."
Ever since the Prices arrived Thursday, people have been going up to them and extending their condolences. For people who love this game, Carry Back and the Prices became much, much more than the winners of the eighth race on Saturday.