04/18/2008 12:21AM

Keeneland Part I


Flashback to 2004.  I was a cub reporter on my first Derby assignment.  Scratch that.  I've always wanted to use the term "cub reporter."  Actually, the DRF needed someone to give seminars at the Corporate Tent area in the infield, and I was the only handicapper without plans for the first Friday and Saturday of May.  At least, I was invited to the Media Party earlier in the week, and I was stoked.  My flight from Newark to Louisville with a Detroit stopover would get me there with plenty of time to get to the hotel, get spiffed up, and get downtown.  Ah, the best laid plans.
The flight was delayed leaving Newark, and I arrived in Detroit just in time to hear "This is the last and FINAL boarding call for the Louisville connector at Gate 60."  No sweat, I thought.  Then, I turned towards the big neon "3" protruding from the gate from which I came. 

"Shug McGaughey!"  I yelled.

No, I didn't happen to see the famous trainer for the Phipps family.  It's just that this is a family blog, and I didn't want to reveal what was really said.  I began to sprint in the direction of Gate 60.  Heck, I won the Miracle Mile in grade school.  How hard could this be?  Apparently, it was very hard.  As I held myself up outside Gate 7 in a losing battle with oxygen, I realized that the Miracle Mile was twenty years prior, and a taste for brownies, cheesecake, and Key Lime Pie had turned my abdomen into a wobbling mess of jelly.  Somehow, I reached the connection with seconds to spare only to be dealt another indignity.  I was in seat 27A.  Red-faced, wheezing, and stinky, I slinked past 26 rows of impatient passengers.
Needless to say, I arrived late to the party.  All the food was gone, and since this event was for the racing industry, all the booze was long gone.  Thankfully, I found a kindred spirit in Bruno De Julio, and we chatted amicably for the remainder of the party.
I hadn't eaten that day, but I knew that my saving graced waited for me at the hotel.  The wonderful staff would regularly bake batches of homemade cookies, and my heart (and tummy) was set on those babies.  I walked into the lobby, and there they were.  Two magnificent specimens filled with chocolate chips.  Birds sang and lovers kissed as I walked to the counter...only to watch TVG's Frank Lyons saunter out of the elevator, box me out, and take the life-giving sweets for himself.  I could have sworn there was a hint of a smirk on his face as he slipped back into the elevator.  I was a beaten man, and I hadn't even made a bet yet.

Nor would I make a wager for the entire weekend.  Despite going on a handicapping tear throughout the day, and telling everyone that Ashado was a stone-cold cinch in the Oaks, I never ventured from the DRF booth.  It's not that I wasn't having fun.  I was.  I love talking to people about racing.  But I was the only DRF employee minding the store, and if any of the papers were unaccounted for, there would be hell to pay.
Derby Day was damp and dreary, but I had an opportunity to go on local television that morning to analyze the race.  I put on my winning smile, and was ready to rumble when I saw Bob Baffert walking into the Racing Office.  Two minutes later, Wimbledon was scratched, and the TV station nixed my segment to cover the "Breaking News."
Back to the tent I trudged wondering why I didn't take up a more satisfying profession like ditch-digging.  The fans were excited, however, and the place was packed with newbies wanting to learn how to decipher the past performances.  I gathered everybody around a circular table, taught them the basics, and thankfully came up with some winners.  More importantly, the folks seemed to enjoy themselves.  As the day progressed, the audience thinned out a bit, and I was sitting by myself when a guy walked into the tent.

"Is this where I can learn how to pick winners?"

"Yep. Have a seat."

Azeri was odds-on in the next race, and I told him that there were two ways he could approach it.  One, he could bet against her, and two, he could pass the race."

"You don't want to bet a 2-5 shot to win," I cautioned.  He looked at the paper, and from the elementary lessons I gave him, he realized he didn't like anyone else. 

"I guess I'll just sit out," he said. 

"I'm with you."

Suddenly, a woman burst into the room. 

"There you are!"  She pointed menacingly at the man, who now was attempting to hide underneath a napkin.  "What are you doing here?  The race is about to go off, and I want to make a bit."

"But dear, the man says we should sit this race out."

I silently thanked the man for jobbing me out to his lunatic wife, but I probably would have done the same thing given the circumstances. 

"He doesn't know anything," she exclaimed.  "I like Mayo On the Side.  You know, like with my hamburger."

"They're off and running..."

Never in my life did I want a horse to win more than Azeri.  But this isn't a Mike Beer story, dear bloggers.  This is my world we're discussing.  Azeri floundered and Mayo On the Side pulled off the upset.  The woman's face turned the color of an eggplant.  The man looked like he was about to flee.  Then, she went apoplectic (great word).  She basically grabbed him by the ear, and gave him a tongue-lashing out the door.

"Good luck," I called after him.

"For what," he answered.  "She didn't give me a chance to learn anything."

I motioned to his wife.  "Oh, I didn't mean good luck at the races."

Right before the big turf race preceding the Run for the Roses, I got a call from the big bosses.  They invited me to come out to the DRF box to watch the race.  As I had yet to see a horse since I arrived in "Horse County," I jumped at the chance.  All I had to do was close up the tent.  As I was finishing up, the skies opened, and a rainstorm of biblical proportions doused Churchill Downs.  The tote board actually malfunctioned, and worst of all, I was stranded in the infield.  Golf carts were being imported to the area to carry people over the lake-sized puddles.  I watched the Derby on television in my tent.  My pick, Lion Heart, went to the front, and gave me just enough hope before Smarty Jones roared by to win.

Ah!  That's a great story.  Hey, WAKE UP!  Whaddaya mean you're sick of the history lesson?  You want to know what happened with the Surly Russian?  Alright.  I got to the airport without being bludgeoned with a heavy object, but my flight sat on the tarmac for an hour, and my attempt at smalltalk with the mysterious and beauteous lady in red resulted in her changing her seat.  She "needed more space," she explained.  I don't know how she found it sitting next to the 300 lb. man in the cowboy hat, but to each their own.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to seeing anyone that feels like playing hooky to go to Keeneland tomorrow.  Will be back tomorrow evening to update everyone on the losses.