One morning, she and her father returned to their home and found it demolished beyond recognition. They walked eight hours through Tokyo to an uncle’s house.
Somehow, by age 68 in late April 1999, life had brought Akiko Gothard all the way to Barn 41 at Churchill Downs, to the fun and frivolity of the Kentucky Derby, to training a colt (K One King) who would finish eighth among 19 and to what you might call the annual ephemeral neighborhood of the damned daydreamers. That’s the transient community of multiple species — sure, go ahead and include the barn-resident cats — that forms in late April for the Derby, makes it over to the track by early evening on the first Saturday in May to learn who gets rewarded for all the hoping, then disperses with a haste that can make Sunday afternoon seem desolate.
That’s what’s missed most this week in the novel coronavirus-caused postponement of the country’s foremost race, and that’s what, across the 15 Derbys I have covered, rang loudest in Gothard’s story. As a window onto a planet, this sporting event has a quality others often lack: Derby people — trainers, jockeys, owners, breeders — so often have lived lives.
At what other sporting event might you hear about how a trainer, the late Hubert “Sonny” Hine of the Hall of Famer Skip Away, who ran a disappointing 12th in 1996, worked in Hong Kong using his fluent Mandarin to help the State Department decode signals?
At what other event could an owner, Vincent Viola of winner Always Dreaming in 2017, have gotten into the game trying to inject fresh life into his aging father, who had immigrated as a child from Buonabitacolo, Italy, then had fought for the United States in World War II against Italy and others?
And at what other event might you trail a 74-year-old man and his wife and daughter into the parking lot in the fading sun and wind up feeling a tad sorry for this . . . this . . . George Steinbrenner?
By lore, the Derby always seemed the place the heart thumped and the breath stopped for two minutes of the sports calendar peerless for their majesty and lunacy. (Two minutes a year, out of 525,600!) After 15 turns of experience, it became something atop that: a place where a single race (1992) could feature MC Hammer and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, where mysteries import themselves from Europe and Japan and the United Arab Emirates and then once in a while decide they would rather not run (Thunder Snow, 2017), where the world’s most earnestly sunny couple, Californians Bob and Beverly Lewis, might win two Derbys (1997, 1999) and Bob might gaze around a track one day and say, “Look at the fun and frivolity!”
This week, I’m missing that neighborhood.
Even the wreckage of last year slung together an improbable human-equine salad. The first-ever Derby disqualification for on-track naughtiness — Maximum Security down, Country House up — managed to sling together the story lines of a raw horse who went unclaimed at $16,000 that past January (Maximum Security), a horse noted only for being big (Country House), a San Diego couple who made a fortune in telemarketing that started in their garage (the Wests), a Panamanian jockey noted for chutzpah (Luis Saez), a trainer the feds since charged with chemical malfeasance (Jason Servis), a 65-year-old South Dakotan trainer long noted for the absence of malfeasance (Country House’s Bill Mott), an owner who died six months earlier and once played polo at Georgetown (J.V. Shields), and a winning jockey born in Seine-et-Marne, France (Flavien Prat).
Even if eccentricity has ebbed some in an era of consortium owners and a 52-year-old jockey aboard 2018 winner Justify (Mike Smith) with a body well-tended enough to appear in ESPN’s naked issue, winding story trails still manage to emerge, such as the bombastic Egyptian American owner (Ahmed Zayat, 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah) whose fortune derived partly from the sale of an Egyptian beverage company to Heineken.
The ephemeral neighborhood of the damned daydreamers is where an Austria-raised, Kentuckian breeder might venture on a Tuesday in 2015. She might yearn to see the big foal she helped coax to the world three years earlier — just one mare and one woman, collaborating at 2:30 a.m., the mare handling the more demanding role — get a bath as the giant Dortmund, the horse of whom trainer Bob Baffert would say, “When he comes out of the stall, he just keeps coming out.” Dortmund would finish third as a main challenger to the great American Pharoah, but before that, the first person to see him, Emilie Gerlinde Fojan, would say, “I really was sobbing when I saw him [again]. It’s so emotional because he’s such a big boy. I was standing there behind the muck pit when they were giving him a bath. You can’t imagine what it feels like.”
How did this particular Austrian start pointing herself toward America?
At 12, she saw “Gone With the Wind.”
Late last century, it would have been possible to get a phone number, stop by the barns at a pay phone when pay phones sufficed, and dial up Bertram N. Linder, breeder of a 1994 Derby entry called Southern Rhythm (finished seventh). Linder could tell about being among the U.S. forces who came upon the end of World War II in Europe and the freeing of those remaining in concentration camps. He could tell of an impoverished man on the roadside eating feverishly from a deceased animal, then dying. Linder could and would tell it to anyone who would listen because he felt it crucial that they never let anyone say it didn’t happen.
The Derby, of all galas, provided that window: on an account both unbearable and necessary.
Within five years, those who wind up knowing the exhilaration included Paul Mellon, the patrician 85-year-old art philanthropist whose Sea Hero won in 1993 to much sentiment, and Michael Pegram, a 46-year-old McDonald’s franchisee owner whose Real Quiet won in 1998 to much rowdiness. If somehow the puzzle goes just right, you might get to a 2013 Derby to witness a beloved steward, Kentuckian trainer Shug McGaughey, see his longtime patience rewarded in his first Derby win at 62 with Orb. Then you might see him stare straight ahead from the box as if disbelieving that life on Earth could turn so beautifully, as occasionally it does.
And sometimes, even with Derbys missed that wind up stinging because their stories were so choice — Smarty Jones in 2004! Mine That Bird in 2009! California Chrome in 2014! — the neighborhood still springs a prize further down the Triple Crown road.
Somehow, the sequence of winning owners in 2002 and 2003 wound up going like this: Prince Ahmed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia (War Emblem, 2002), followed by the so-called “Sackets Six” from tiny Sackets Harbor, N.Y., near Canada on Lake Ontario (Funny Cide).
The Sackets Six, having departed the ephemeral neighborhood and then watched their horse win the Preakness, made for an all-time rollicking interview near the end of that May. They were men you thought you knew all your life, men without oil fields. One, J.P. Constance, would go out on the porch afternoons at 4:30 and blow a “cocktail bugle” for all to come around. Another was late for the interview because he had to umpire a prep baseball game. (He called bases.) Another, Mark Phillips, taught Math 129 at a community college. They came from mid-1960s classes at Sackets Harbor High, where they won elections such as Most Comical, Most Likely to Succeed, Most Athletic, class president (in the case of Jack Knowlton). They had gotten into the sport for $5,000 each at a backyard party even as one, Harold Cring, said he had begun by saying he would sooner bury the $5,000 in a coffee can in a yard.
Where horse intellectuals often comment on the varying looks of the various competitors, one Funny Cide owner, Larry Reinhardt, said, “He looks like the rest of them.”
Another, Constance, said he had learned that “geldings are tough to breed.”
Gales of laughter tore through the room, including when Cring said they had convinced him partly by prodding him to try to beef up his eventual obituary. Then, as a fresh Kentucky Derby (and Preakness) winner, he said, “I can’t wait to die!”
Derby wins never do die, so even if you missed Mine That Bird’s smelling-salts upset in 2009, you might venture to visit him 10 years later in his home in Roswell, N.M., because, yes: The rich tapestry of the neighborhood had found a place for a horse from New Mexico — fourth in the Sunland Derby! — who would go home later to live happily down the road from the International UFO Museum and Research Center. He’s a Derby winner with a pretty but non-regal address because the tapestry of Earth does need those.
Four years before Mine That Bird arrived charmingly on a 21-hour ride in a pickup with trainer Chip Woolley, and two years after the Sackets Six had learned you can’t breed a gelding, in came Steinbrenner. He had Bellamy Road in 2005, from his farm in Ocala, Fla. Bellamy Road had won the Wood Memorial by such a commanding margin — 17½ lengths — that you might have called it precisely the type of dominance Steinbrenner generally craved.
So the loud Yankees owner joined the neighborhood as a looming presence even when not around the barns, and he looked primed for a rare, rare club: Only John W. Galbraith, who owned the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1950 to 1985 and two Derby winners (Chateaugay, 1963, and Proud Clarion, 1967), had done the World Series-Derby double. By Saturday early evening, Bellamy Road reached the top of the stretch in swell position.
Then he faded, just faded, nothing more or less, and wound up seventh, and the Derby conducted one of its absurd finishes, the winner being the long-shot Giacomo (fourth place in the Santa Anita Derby!), whose owner Jerry Moss formed the “M” in “A&M Records,” alongside Herb Alpert. How many times had Moss entered the Derby, as of that night? Once.
So if you had waited at the edge of the lobby for Steinbrenner, wondering whether he had exited from the 150,000 already, you would have seen him come along unbothered, past an audience keener to see Cuba Gooding Jr. or the Manning brothers. Steinbrenner edged along as his wife and daughter took his arm at certain points. He stopped at one point to thank a Derby host and said to her: “Thank you, honey. You’ve done a great job. A beautiful job.”
Outdoors, his daughter saw someone seeking comment and said kindly, “I don’t think so today.” Steadily they went through the pretty orange dusk, and the titan looked just bummed enough to stoke a true perversion: sympathy for a guy with (then) six World Series titles and 10 American League pennants.
Then, just as they got to the Ford Explorer, two 20-something dudes in Yankees caps hurried up. They flanked Steinbrenner as he complied with their selfies in those nascent days of camera phones. They scurried off merrily as a Churchill Downs attendant shooed them and said: “He’s tired. And he’s sad about Bellamy Road.”
The annual, ephemeral neighborhood of damned daydreamers had welcomed him in, roughed him up, spat him out and made you wonder whether he could appreciate just being in it.
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