The 146th Kentucky Derby, already elbowed down the calendar from May 2 to Sept. 5, would go completely fan-less because of the local and regional uptick in novel coronavirus cases. Kaput went Churchill Downs’s hope of having a 14 percent capacity of properly distanced spectators who would have included Bob and Barbara Weihe, who had located tickets even with tickets sparse. Bob Weihe’s streak of attending the Derby would end at a mind-discombobulating 73 years.
Absurdly, the end would come not for the usual reasons, such as death or illness or poorly timed family wedding. It would come because sometime late last year, a zoonotic virus probably jumped from a bat to a human, then savaged a planet and especially a United States that has struggled to contain it.
“I was dreading it,” Mark Weihe said.
Think of the mainstays from the 73rd Kentucky Derby on May 3, 1947, so long ago. The winning horse, 6-1 shot Jet Pilot, would live to 1967 and die at 22. The winning owner, cosmetics magnate Elizabeth Arden, would live to 1966 and 84. Winning trainer Tom Smith, who gained posthumous renown in the 21st century because he also had trained that movie darling Seabiscuit, died in 1957 at 78. Winning jockey Eric Guerin, just 22 and Derby-debuting, lived until 1993 and 68, his ashes scattered near the finish line at Gulfstream Park near Miami.
Even the particular celebrities in attendance told of a time long bygone. With the Second World War barely concluded, Hearst Corporation’s “News of the Day” rummaged its cameras through the Derby crowds and found Adm. William “Bull” Halsey and Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, Allied leaders in the Pacific, as life churned on in black and white.
Across the sloppy track from the commanders and their choice seats on that cloudy day, Derby devotee Huberta “Bert” Weihe had brought along her 9-year-old son. Her own Derby attendance extended back to 1933, when she graced the infield for the famed brouhaha through the stretch between two front-running jockeys who scrapped from horsebacks and smacked each other with their sticks, an occasion so sadly lacking any Twitter to rehash it.
Her son does not remember crowing about his Derby attendance in school or anything. He does not remember it mattering all that much. “I guess she just needed somebody to go with her,” he said at age 82.
He remembers they watched from the infield, with the standing adults blocking his view, so his mother encouraged him to crawl through the ankles and the knees to the fence, which he did, whereupon the horses stampeded by him at the eighth pole, Jet Pilot eventually staving off the favored Phalanx.
“All I can really see” in memory, he said, “you could see the horses go by, but they just go by. You see a little bit but not a whole lot of which horse is winning or anything like that.”
And that was that, Derby No. 1 and, as fate and other shenanigans would have it, Weihe’s last time in the infield, meaning he would miss out on its glories as from the 1970s, when revelers streaked and one climbed a flagpole to disrobe. For Derby No. 2 in 1948: “My cousin was a ticket-taker at the gate to a section. He snuck my mother and me into a section.” It rained. They watched the great Citation, who would win the Triple Crown but hadn’t yet then.
For Derby No. 8 in 1954, Bob and four buddies stood outside, hopes possibly quashed. “Then we saw a drainpipe,” he said, words that christen many a worthy story. One of the five teens stood 6-foot-7: “So we could get up the drainpipe, then he had to boost us up, because he was 6-7, he would boost us up on the roof. We turned around and pulled him up.”
They descended into the jockeys’ quarters, where the tall guy “stepped on a jockey’s bed and the jockey got mad at him because he put a size 14 footprint on the bed,” Bob Weihe said. “From the jockeys room, we ran through the paddock into the area where people were kind of looking at us. We were daring in those days. We snuck into a seating area. Back then it wasn’t really as strict as they are now.”
For Derby No. 11, he brought a date who would become his date for the ensuing 62 years plus. But eight months before Bob and Barbara married Jan. 25, 1958, he and a friend since first grade got into the Derby, then went to the second floor, then floated their tickets down to Barbara and her friend on the outside.
“From the balcony, they dropped down to my friend and me in their rosary cases,” she said. “Everybody kind of carried a rosary case back then.”
She paused and marveled, “We’ve been bad.”
Bob Weihe’s streak reached 20 in 1966 (Kauai King!), 30 in 1976 (Bold Forbes), 40 in 1986 (Ferdinand), 50 in 1996 (Grindstone), 60 in 2006 (Barbaro) and 70 in 2016 (Nyquist). To reach the Derby, he has left one wedding reception and a few Saturday morning work shifts he had rearranged by logging Friday overtime. “I really didn’t think too much about the streak,” he said. “It was there, but I still didn’t think about it a lot, until it got up to around 65. Then I started thinking, ‘Hey, I’ve been every year.’ ”
It’s a streak so long he can tell of the weather he found coldest (1957) and hottest (2008) and have those days sit 51 years apart and speak of both 1947 and the perennial rain of the late 2010s, when the two perennial Derby couples, Bob and Barbara and friends, had a box 20 yards past the finish line but did a lot of standing, back under shelter. It’s so long he can tell about the time he and his brother-in-law hung on the rail and turned up in a Louisville Courier-Journal photo, when, “I was 30 or 40 years old, I guess.” It’s so long he can remember it as a notch less sinful, as in, “Once the infield opened up the way it did and all the college kids started coming and it was all drinking and all that, and of course, Churchill Downs had to put a stop to bringing your liquor in.”
And it’s so long he has followed the world as it steadily went kaleidoscopic: “Back then, the early days, it was like straw hats and suits. Now you’ve got all these fancy suits, all these different colors. If you had a blue suit [back then], that was fine. Now you’re the dull person in the crowd.”
How many people do you know who beam telling about touting Chateaugay in 1963 and have that memory stand a full 16 years after their streak began? “I had a Coke route over in Indiana,” delivering Coca-Cola to stores by truck, “and everybody would ask me, ‘Who’s going to win the Derby?’ And I tipped them on Chateaugay. About 10 people gave me money to bet on Chateaugay. When I went back the next week, I had all their money. They thought I was a genius.”
Fully 40 years on from that in 2003, Barbara couldn’t go in the aftermath of emergency surgery but insisted Bob go. “I wouldn’t have made him miss the Derby for anything,” she said. “It was emergency surgery, or I would have planned it better.”
So he took his mother, who would live until 2006 and age 90, and he squired her around in her wheelchair for one of her volumes of Derbies — if not quite a streak — in the 72-year span between 1933 and 2005.
Then, around maybe 2 p.m., well, “They released me on Derby day,” Barbara said. “And I couldn’t get a hold of anybody to take me home.”
Finally, she reached her sister.
“Bob, how many have I been to?” she said across the room at one point.
“Sixty-two,” he said.
“Sixty-two,” she said.
When May 2 came around this year, people felt for Bob and Barbara, who have three children and six grandchildren.
“Our daughter called around,” Barbara Weihe said. “She called the whole family at the last minute, and they came over here and stood in the street and they sang, ‘My Old Kentucky Home,’ ” maybe 30 of them. “Oh, my gosh, he was crying. They all were wearing casual clothes, but most of the women had on Derby hats.”
When the Derby tried as hard as it could to become that sporting event with a smattering of fans, the Weihes got both tickets and hope, until the news arrived Aug. 21 and Mark Weihe went up the stairs. It turned out that he needn’t have said anything; his father’s face said everything. A grandson in California had heard what happened and called. The Weihes had switched on their upstairs TV.
“Let down,” Bob said. “Kind of disappointed. I felt, for myself, disappointed, but I felt disappointed for everybody” in the city he loves. He expressed hope that the horse owners can go; they couldn’t in June at the Belmont Stakes. He said, “It’s something that you just don’t realize that would happen.”
“I’ve kind of accepted it,” said the man who once crawled through knees and ankles to see the stretch. “I don’t like it. But I’ve kind of accepted the fact that I won’t be there.”
Then he paused.
“Maybe I could go sneak in. Maybe I could climb through another window.”
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