Saturday, May 7, 2011

Nothing Better: The Run For The Roses

Funny Cide crossing the finish line to win
the 2003 Kentucky Derby
Republican-American: Are they running for those darn roses again? For most of us, that means a few things, like: How much money should we wager, and lose? They may wear fancy hats in Louisville, but I just need something floppy so no one sees me shuffling into OTB. And lastly, how can those people drink all those Mint Juleps that early in the day?

The most exciting two minutes in sport returns: It is the 137th Kentucky Derby.

On one occasion, I was privileged to write about thoroughbred racing. It was obvious, instantly: There is no better sport.

Nothing compares.

The athletes never give you grief. They just eat, dump, sleep, and run fast, except my horse. He just ambles along.

Horse owners love to chat with the press. Why else would they do this if it wasn't for the action?

Jockeys are tremendous interviews. These guys cheat death eight or nine times in an afternoon. They could care less what you think or say. Besides, hanging out in the jockey room makes you feel like Richard Dreyfus in "Close Encounters."

You know what I mean.

The vast array of characters, in the barns, along the back rail, are fascinating, quirky, and irritable, in a delightful way. Trainers may be brash, but they have a real-world perspective.

Hey, they sleep in a barn with a horse, and rise every day at 4 a.m. That lifestyle does not attract phonies.

Some trainers are cocky as all get out, but let's face it: When you are talking to a man with horse manure on his shoes, how arrogant can he get?

For one day a year, the first Saturday of May, we all care deeply about thoroughbred racing. It is the only time that gambling doesn't seem like a vice, when even grandma asks, "Are you going to OTB?"

Of course, we cannot think of this day without thinking of our guy, Dave Mahan. In 2003 Mahan, who was born in Naugatuck, lived in Watertown, worked in Wolcott, took us for a ride atop Funny Cide, the one-in-a-million purchase who dragged a working-man's ownership group into the elite circle of the Sport of Kings with victories in the Derby and Preakness.

Mahan died of brain cancer in 2009, at the very young age of 61. I have glimpsed him three times this week in Derby preview videos that pop up everywhere. They rekindle remarkable memories.

Mahan made a lot of money on Funny Cide, but his catering and banquet business was already doing fine. The Funny Cide phenomenon was not about cashing a winning ticket.

Born with a gift for turning a phrase, the best quote Mahan gave me had nothing to do with money, and everything to do with history. I asked him what was the best and most remarkable part of Funny Cide's Derby victory, and he said: "They will never make another Mint Julep glass without Funny Cide's name on it."

So true, Dave, so true.

So scour the Racing Form for tips, grab that dusty bottle of bourbon in the cupboard, pinch off those mint leaves, and scrounge in the drawer for the muddler. It's Derby Day.

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