A Derby Story 


Stories have to be told, or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.

Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees


What does a simple girl raised on Gilmore Lane know about horse racing, or the Kentucky Derby? Luckily for this child, she lived with a daddy who shared his enthusiasm for his favorite spectator sport with his dependents.

Daddy had always been an avid sports fan. He cheered for the University of Kentucky basketball teams. While drinking beer from a frosted mug, eating shelled peanuts, and glued to a radio, he listened to play-by-play broadcasts. He was entertained during summers by tuning into Cincinnati Reds Baseball. But Daddy was most enthralled with thoroughbred horse racing.

I believe he enjoyed the sport because he could attend meets at Miles Park and Churchill Downs in Louisville and River Downs in Cincinnati. He did not have access to U of K or Reds tickets.

Daddy had an immense respect for famous jockeys and treated them as celebrities, like Eddie Arcaro, Willie Shoemaker, Bill Hartack, and Angel Cordero. I assumed Daddy easily identified with these riders because he could appreciate their body size. He was small in stature as well, but it did not diminish his determination to be considered a winner. He praised any man who proved his strength, will to compete, and achieving success in their given professions.

It’s conceivable Daddy dreamt of living the life of a jockey, but fate proved otherwise. So, what was an alternative – to appoint one of his nine children to live his dream. Of course, it had to be a son. Girls were never considered strong enough to control a fleeting horse.

The summer my brother Larry turned age sixteen, Daddy had a talk with him. He knew how his son struggled as a student and would dread returning to the classroom. A remedy was about to be presented. Unbeknown to the family, Daddy had befriended a trainer at Churchill Downs He asked if his son could be hired to work on the backside, and later prepare him to become a rider.

On a hot August day in 1956, Larry walked with Daddy to his new job. This small kid knew nothing about horses, mucking stalls, hot walking or sleeping in a tack room filled with hay, used as a makeshift bed. Mother was furious with Daddy for convincing her naïve child he could one day become a jockey.

While Larry was on the road like a vagabond, Daddy took his daughters to the track. We learned to read a Racing Form, a Program, how to bet $2.00 across the board, never to bet on a favorite, and to sense the excitement of watching Daddy’s horse bolt across the finish line. Even at a young age, I understood the reason racing had such a passionate appeal. Fans could be close to the action. They could spend the day gambling, and a pack of kids could tag along to share the thrill of it all.

Although Cobbs attended races like handicappers, they never imagined mingling with the rich and famous on Derby Day. We instead watched the Run for the Roses on a black and white TV, encamped at home with a group overflowing from couch to floor. It was not until I married my husband Dave that the chance to attend a Kentucky Derby became a reality.

In 1968, my husband Dave was drafted into the Army. He reported for duty at Fort Knox three short months after we married. He served his two years, which included a tour in Vietnam. When he returned home, Dave began making a list of things he wanted to do, to help offset the nerve-wracking war experiences he wished to leave buried deep for no one to find. One of the priority events was attending the Kentucky Derby. I was a bit surprised because he never shown much interest in horse racing. He explained that when his soldier buddies learned he was from Louisville, Ky., they asked about the Derby. Dave confessed he had not been. This was about to change.

The unappreciated veteran was forced to live in near poverty. He returned to his abandoned wife, two babies and was strapped with a low paying job. He understood that a trip to the track would be possible on a minimum budget. He planned to include me in the adventure. We had no experience how to proceed.

Fortunate for us, one of our best friends, who was raised in the South End of Louisville near Churchill Downs, had all the experience to guarantee us a day to remember. This special friend laid out the traditional rituals in precise terms so Dave could easily follow the directives for attending the annual neighborhood party. Neither of us totally conceived what the day would do for my husband.

Dave later explained the mastermind plan and what was expected of me. In order for him to get an early start to reach the track, so he could stake out a parcel of ground in the infield, I would be responsible for preparing a picnic lunch and then deliver our kids to his Mom, who would babysit for the long day. I worked frantically to fry chicken, bake brownies, pack snacks, and tuck them all securely in a sturdy tote bag. I met more female friends who were also carrying country kitchen meals. They led me through a dusty tunnel that seemed endless. We moved like a herd of slow crawling cattle, some mooing along the way, until we saw an opening that spilled us into the track infield.

We found our husbands proudly standing inside a roped-off section. It occurred to me this was considered their idea of reserved seats, crammed in the confines of some highly animated crazed Derby party goers. Blankets thrown on the ground would not require an arm band, just a place to land. By this time, Dave had been celebrating his first Derby for hours, barely noon and he was already in a drunken state. I was not prepared for his offensive condition. He glared in my direction with a, “Don’t even think about reprimanding me.” It didn’t take much time to realize the whole batch of men were in the same shape.

For the sake of us all, I had to divert my attention from this bunch of men who were enjoying the freedom of acting as carefree teens and leaving their responsibilities aside for an afternoon of play. So, what does one do when she goes to the races besides drink and pee? She watches horses run and she bets. Watching a race in the infield was impossible to see over the thick crowd of spectators, unless lucky enough to climb a ladder, brought in by a genius. Trying to place a bet was also a challenge. The lines got mingled with bathroom lines – both endless and with stinky outcomes. My meager $20.00 betting money - evaporated. I never cashed a ticket. Dave never placed a bet.

By the end of the day, I realized my husband made the most of his first Derby. When we were ready to leave the grounds, I could not imagine how I would get him to our car, parked blocks away from the track. I walked. Dave staggered along Taylor Blvd. He complained about needing a bathroom. Not hesitating, he walked to the nearest building and relieved himself. Drivers along the road shouted at him, approving of his make-shift toilet. Dave turned to them and waved back with one finger salute. My patience was being tested by this time, but I needed to exert every ounce of energy to get this limp man home before I picked up our children, who would ask if their daddy had fun with his buds.

As I reflect on that Derby Day mini-series, I must admit our friend did Dave a mysterious favor. By the early 70’s, my young husband had escaped death while trapsing thru rice paddies in Vietnam, and then came home to a perplexed wife who didn’t understand the once gentle man. The war fatigued vet was strained with family burdens. He was ill-prepared to work out his confusion and raw nerves. Dave’s invitation to join in with a field of men friends, instead of sitting in the Mekong Delta field, was worth awarding a bronze star to the South End host. If I had been more mature, I would have reacted differently, instead of reflecting the image of a Drill Sargent

I must admit watching the Derby with my Cobb Family held sweeter, more simple memories. However, my first experience of observing and tolerating in-field frisky fans was something that prepared me for welcoming college kids to my home base. They did not surprise me when they carried home stacks of mint julip glasses as appeasement gifts. They had no excuse for their goal to party – except to celebrate the greatest Day of Racing.

I claim, The Kentucky Derby is the Feast Day for Louisville. We Give thanks for a day that can never be erased in the minds of native Louisvillians.

Submitted by: Betty Cobb Arnett October 2020

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Are you a native Louisvillian?, Kentuckian? What are your feelings about the DERBY?


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