Thoroughbred horse fans, whether brought into the game later in life by a friend or born into the sport through a family member, all have an ultimate destination – the Kentucky Derby. For those among us that bet on the same Thoroughbreds, having the Derby winner is a matter of great pride and confirmation of handicapping skill. To sit under Churchill’s twin spires holding the winning ticket, well, the player and fan has made it to horse nirvana.
In the spring of 1996, I held both a winning bet and Churchill clubhouse tickets for Derby day and both went unclaimed. Here’s why.
During the spring, fall, summer and winter of my family’s discomfort – 1995 - the year my girlfriend, now wife, and father both were diagnosed with aggressive forms of cancer, I was hoping, praying to simply have a family intact. Of course most of those days were filled with different forms of medicine, doctor’s opinions and just plain waiting around.
My father had been lying flat since a surgery in early October, just two short months after he started vomiting blood. His surgery originally slated to remove stomach cancer, ended up being terminal pancreatic cancer. When he didn’t awake 10 days after his surgery, doctors went back in to remove all of his pancreas and quite a bit of whatever else was close by. These were the events that lead up to my daily search for signs of life beyond the rhythmic bounce of a breathing machine or maybe just a peaceful death.
Meanwhile, starting in May, my wife received 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 taking my wife to the beach, going to Red Sox spring training with my dad and maybe, just maybe together we could be part of the roar of the 150,000 strong that erupts just as the Churchill Downs’ starting gate springs open for the Derby. A big dream for the son of a school teacher, who spent summer days on the hot top at Suffolk Downs and the quite greener Rockingham Park reading the Racing Form along with his dad.
I made it to the beach with wife. It’s the place I would later propose to her about 18 months after her stem cell procedure. I even made it to Fort Meyers, Florida, the Red Sox winter home, with my dad and sister just two months after he miraculously woke up from a nine-week coma. Shortly thereafter, I figured what the heck, why not try to make that Derby dream come true.
So I wrote a letter to Churchill Downs explaining my dad’s illness, our love of horse racing and my desire to get him to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Surprisingly, someone replied with two tickets for the Kentucky Derby dated for Saturday, May 4, 1996.
My father died just two days prior, on a beautiful, cloudless May day. I gave the tickets away to my dad’s friend, who never made the trip.
In the meantime, while we prepared to wake my father, I took some time to read the Form and then snuck away to Suffolk Downs to make my Derby bet. I figured since I had to pick the funeral home, casket, church readings, etc., why not try to pick the Derby winner, something I had hoped to be doing alongside my father in Lousiville.
Just as I’ll be doing this week, I narrowed the large field down to just a handful of contenders. I placed $2 to win on my three top choices. One of the three, Grindstone, nailed Cavonnier at the finish line to win by the slimmest of margins – the length of his nostril. The win paid about $14, but I never cashed the ticket.
Instead I brought the winning ticket to my father’s wake the following day and tucked into his jacket pocket. He went out a winner. And my dream ended in a much different way.