Winning the derby


            I wasn't part of the establishment when I started in this business. Hell, horse racing goes back before the Revolution here and with all those great horse racing families, most people don't ever have a chance of breaking in -- let alone a kid with a dream.

            Maybe I'd dreamt too much since, too, thinking I could do it again, when most people would have been glad to have won the Kentucky derby once.

            Don't ask me how I knew she was a winner when none of the other stable hands did, or how I managed to buy her out from under the noses of all those other horse racing gentlemen. None of them figured she was worth anything, or I'd never have gotten her.

            I guess it must have been buried down deep where most people wouldn't look to find that kind of magic. If horses have souls, then that's what this was -- and there was no easy way to bring it out either.

            I worked that young filly till we both should have dropped, teaching her what I'd seen others teaching their horse from the sideline. I talked with everybody about the tricks of the trade. Some of them felt sorry for me for wasting my money on a horse which would never win. Others simply saw no harm in telling their secrets to a kid. And I was in a hurry to learn.

            Perhaps I was in too much of a hurry for that first race. I had one hell of a time scraping up enough money to meet the entry fee. Or perhaps losing a race is part of the lesson, too, seeing where a horse can go wrong and making those final adjustments. People thought I was stupid and laughed. But my father didn't. I can't say he saw anything more in the horse than other people, but he loved me and saw how much it meant to me, and he didn't preach about wasting my money.

            Even when I lost, he refused to say "I told you so," though I think he was a little surprised when I told him the horse could win the derby, and I asked him to put up the money for me.

            I told him I would pay him back.

            "That's a lot of money, boy," he told me. "And just how do you figure on coming up with all of it?"

            "Why out of the winnings, of course," I said.

            Who knows what went on in the old man's head? Maybe he saw something in me or figured the loss might teach me a lesson I wouldn't learn any other way, kicking out of me this obsession for horse racing. We both knew there wouldn't be another race unless I brought that horse in.

            When my horse won, my old man didn't act surprised either. But he did have a kind of sad look in his eyes, as if he knew from then on I'd never get over horses, family history or not. It was in my blood now.

            Lord was it ever.

            I've raced horses for over seventy years. I won some and lost some. But to tell you the truth, I've never won another like that first Derby. Up until now, that is.

            I've found another horse with that deep down magic, and with me being just ninety this month, I know I'm not likely to get another chance at it. So as you can imagine, I'd sure like to leave this world as a winner.



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