A Derby Story 


ROYALTY

 

Maybe you don’t remember what you did for the 100th Kentucky Derby, but I sure do. I was part of a determined troupe of zanies who set out to make its mark on a horse race for the ages. There’s more than a little irony here, because our group wasn’t generally known for “getting it right”. Most of us could have been easily cast in a production of “The Three Stooges Meet General Custer”.

As an example of our “normal operations”, consider this: we bought win, place and show tickets on every betting possibility in the race. We knew we’d have the winner, plus five more cashable tickets. Going back to the windows would have brought in $20.20. This was not a good return on a $72 investment. But wait, there’s more. Because we saw ourselves as “big-time players”, we bought three sets, for a total of $216.

I’ll bet you think we took our $60.60 and plunked it on a 20-1 shot’s nose in the next race. Not so. In a brilliant stab at solvency, we decided to keep the tickets. Later on, we’d get rich by selling them to collectors for big bucks, and then famous, when the press came for the story. To date, sales haven’t been good, and no reporter has called.

More of our shortcomings surfaced when a couple of our guys decided to “moon” us into prominence. They dropped their drawers in episodes of bravado that brought more ho-hums than hurrahs. Their buns were boring because the day’s main ‘tease had already been pulled off by a guy who climbed the flagpole and wiggled out of his jeans. I hope his picture in Sports Illustrated was worth the arrest. Then, too, the hubbub caused by our flashers was as limited as their talents.

So how did this unlikely crew get a share of the spotlight? By unfolding a bedsheet and hoisting it above the heads of milling humanity. It had a message concocted in a flash and painted in near darkness the night before the Derby.

Because the inspiration for the Kentucky Derby was the English Derby held at Epsom Downs, Churchill Downs invited British Royalty to the centennial Derby. Princess Margaret and her husband, Lord Anthony Snowden, viewed the race from a box draped in Winsdsor colors of black and gold.

That afternoon, directly across the track from the royal box in the infield, stood a celebrated stepladder. Over the years, it was involved in turnstile intrigue, sleight-of-hand, and even confiscation by the president of Churchill Downs. The ladder belonged to Billy Fields, one of our long-time leaders.

The challenge of keeping the sign elevated was met by Billy’s antique ladder and another that appeared as if on cue. Billy and the girl who owned the second one ascended their steps and held the corners of the sheet.

The message was pointed toward the grandstand and the visiting royals. In recognition of the Derby’s foremost guests, we proudly showed our sheet. And what about the message? Was it worthy of media coverage that would ensure a wide-spread audience? You be the judge. Its six words, in neat script, were: “Hey Meg, had any winners lately?”

We thought the sign, taken literally, caught the infield spirit pretty well. After all, the Princess did come to the races, and what’s more natural than chatting about winners?

Meg and Tony are no longer married. In 1974, we weren’t aficionados of palace gossip, so we didn’t know then, nor do we know now, the details of their split. But as I recall, some were laying odds that royal horsing around was no longer paying off. Did “…had any winners lately?” inquire about more than Meg’s horse picking prowess?!?

Infielders liked the sign and there came a report that radio disc jockeys chuckled over it. A little later, a writer for the Courier-Journal showed up, asked questions, and snapped several shots.

After the interviews and the pictures, we all felt like stars. We speculated gleefully about how much easier it was going to be to get out of the bed the next morning to sprint for the newspaper. But, alas, early risers who rifled through the hometown coverage found no mention of their infield howdy-do. A later survey of out-of-town papers turned up only a minuscule mention. Our attempt at fame had failed.

On the Thursday following the Derby, Billy called. When he asked if I had a subscription to Sports Illustrated, I felt a rush.

“Did we make it?”

“Yes”.

End of conversation; start of dash to the newsstand. I was almost too hyped to drive.

When I saw “Hey Meg, …” spread across the bottom of page thirty-one, I felt like a celebrity. There was Billy atop his ladder, a drink in one hand and the bedsheet corner in the other.

And there on the facing page was “Flagpole Paul”, his jeans and things hanging at half-mast.

In the twenty-five years since then, our Derbies have become more predictable. We gather in the infield to picnic, drink, wager, sing “My Old Kentucky Home”, and reminisce. This year, I’m sure we’ll recall the time we appointed ourselves ambassadors of the infield, made a plan, and connected with royalty. Larry, Curly, Moe, George Armstrong and Billy rode to victory.




Ken “Skip” Anderson – JCPS teacher -retired, author of Princess Margaret greeting sign