Friday, May 1, 2009

The Derby and My Dad

As noted in the Foolish Pleasure blog, the Kentucky Derby is one of the Top Ten Traditional Sporting Events. Every horse racing fan should make the mecca to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. I had tickets once, but never made the trip from my Boston-area home.

In the winter of 1995, the winter of my family's discomfort - the year my girlfriend, now wife and father both were diagnosed with aggressive forms of cancer - I was hoping my dad would just get off the life support that kept him living day-after-day through 103 degree fevers and average heart rates of a marathoner.

He had been lying flat since a surgery of early October of 1995 - a surgery that was originally slated to remove stomach cancer, which, in turn, ended up being terminal pancreatic cancer. Ten days after surgeons removed part of his pancreas my father lay unconscious and unresponsive, so doctors went back in to remove all of his pancreas and quite a bit of his intestines. These were the events that lead up to my daily search for signs of life beyond the rhythmic rises and falls of the breathing machine or maybe just the hope of a peaceful death.

Meanwhile, my 26-year-old girlfriend had been receiving chemotherapy strong enough to kill her immune system and the cancer that grew along with it. She received a stem cell transplant (her own clean bone marrow) on the very day my father went into surgery...the first time. She alternated between restless sleep and bouncing off the walls that kept her safe from airborne infection for the next 28 days.

And I got to know the cleaning ladies, nurses and doctors at two city hospitals. I also dreamt of better days at the beach with Kara, going to Red Sox spring training or maybe making it to the Derby with my dad. 

Since he'd taken me to Suffolk Downs as a kid, one hoping to win a few bucks on a few nags, I'd been in love with horse racing. This love blossomed every year when my dad made his annual August trek to Saratoga - where the best in racing gathered every summer along with the pageantry and disappointment that are synonymous with Thoroughbred horse racing. 

Each year my dad would call me before the Travers Stakes and ask who I liked. In the summer of 1981 when I was 13-years-old, I picked Willow Hour because I liked his jockey Eddie Maple. Of course he beat that year's Derby winner, Pleasant Colony by a narrowing nose.

I made it to the beach with Kara. It's a place I would propose to her some 18 months after her stem cell procedure. I even made it the Red Sox spring training home, Fort Meyers, with my dad and sister just two months after he miraculously awoke from a nine-week coma. Shortly thereafter, I figured why not try make that Derby dream come true. 

As someone who enjoys writing, I can be persuasive so I wrote a letter explaining my dad's plight, our love of horse racing and my desire to get him to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Surprisingly, someone from Churchill Downs replied with two tickets for the Kentucky Derby, dated May 2, 1996.

My father died two days prior, on a beautiful, cloudless May day. I gave the tickets away to a friend of my dad's, who never made the race. I should have just kept them.

While preparing to wake my father, I took some time to read the Daily Racing Form and snuck away to Suffolk Downs to bet on the Kentucky Derby. I narrowed the field of 19 down to three potential winners and placed the minimum wager of $2 to win on each. One of these three, Grindstone, nailed Cavonnier at the finish line to win by the slimmest of margins - the length of his nostril. The win paid $13.80, but I never cashed the ticket.

Instead I brought the winning ticket to my father's wake and tucked into his jacket pocket. He went out a winner.

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