04/27/2010 12:00AM

Time clouds Derby memories

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First of all, I would like to apologize to the staff and management of Molly Malone's, down there in the theater district of Baxter Avenue, for my absence this week. Granted, their bottom line might not feel much of a twitch - the boss has me on a strict three Guinness limit - but my guests always find themselves dancing atop those well-worn tables or reciting James Joyce all through Derby week until proprietor Tighe O'Callaghan pipes the last, plaintive call of the evening. The Irish know how to do Derby.

Alas, events on the home front made the roadtrip to Louisville impossible this year, and it hurts, but not nearly as much as my dear wife's broken leg. In addition to all the obvious duties, I must be on hand to chalk her crutch tips and make sure to sweep her path clear of debris. She's getting better.

And why be greedy? By my feeble calculations, I have been to 20 of the last 22 Kentucky Derbies, the last 11 in the service of Daily Racing Form. These are not Joe Hirsch numbers, of course, but they represent an absolute bounty for any serious fan of racing's hallmark events.

That run includes every Derby since 1993, which I believe was the year Mack Miller embraced Paul Mellon as Sea Hero romped home, proclaiming for all the world to hear, "I really like you, Mr. Mellon. But I love Mrs. Genter."

No, wait, that was three years earlier, the Unbridled Derby, with Carl Nafzger's colt nailing California's Cavonnier on the money and the Japanese hotshot Ski Captain finishing up the track.

"I love you Craig Perret," Nafzger whispered later, out of earshot.

Okay, so the details are a getting a little foggy. All my notebooks went south when a pipe broke in the garage, leaving only my memory and some lawn chairs intact. The chairs have held up better than the memory, so on second thought Ski Captain and his media entourage might have come later, and Cavonnier after that, since I distinctly recall having drinks in the Galt House Hotel suite of Bob and Barbara Walter overlooking the Ohio River the night before, and someone in the lobby was wearing a "Bob Dole in '96" button. We toasted to Cavonnier's good fortune and their family priest prayed for a safe journey. One more "amen" and Cav might have gotten the nod instead of Grindstone, Unbridled's son.

"Right or wrong? Right or wrong?" demanded Nick Zito, again and again, until the heavens relented and rained the 1994 Derby right into Go for Gin's lap. Much later that night, or maybe it was the following year, I found myself downtown at Zena's Cafe at the grill behind the bar flipping burgers and burning fries with my favorite racing film guy, Billy Rapaport. Some guys have to explain lipstick smears and long strands of auburn hair. Me, it was grease stains.

They run together, the Kentucky Derbies, at least those four or five days leading up to the race, unless you do something desperate to mix things up, like visit Indiana. Once I got very brave and ventured forth to Anita Madden's Derby party in Lexington on Derby eve - the theme was the Fall of Rome. I found the place with the aid of a forgiving state trooper and, for some strange reason, I met Kato Kaelin. Sorry to say Madden no longer throws her lavish all-nighters, while Kato and I have lost touch.

If I had been followed all these years with my own Kentucky Derby Doofus-Cam, there would have been priceless footage of walking from the backstretch to the paddock with Mike Pegram, tracking his colt Real Quiet, and the sight of Pegram's pal, Brad McKinzie, waving his arms in glee at the second-floor railing, a hardcore California crazy who knew exactly what was about to happen.

There would have been a sound bite of yours truly observing, with all the experience of one Derby behind him, that Winning Colors was "losing it" as she pranced and bucked her way into and through the tunnel to be saddled.

There would have been 2004 footage worthy of The Weather Channel, when an old-fashioned gully-washer hit Churchill Downs between the Woodford Reserve and post time for the Derby, backing up storm drains and filling the infield hollow near the clubhouse turn with water that can only be described as suspiciously gray. Kids were diving in and frolicking. We christened it Lake Typhus. Smarty Jones was not fazed.

There would have been that post-race closeup, in 1999, of Les Antley, the jockey's father, beaming with pride at his son's work aboard Charismatic and declaring without hesitation, when asked if the drugged-plagued Chris would stay clean, "That's all history. I can promise that."

I will miss Bardstown Road this week, with its wall-to-wall action as the Derby draws closer and the locals rise to the occasion. I will miss those late mornings when a Derby horse is taken out to graze behind the barns fronting Longfield Avenue. There a racehorse gets to act a little bit like a real horse, and the audience is small.

Wherever I'm watching, there will be a twinge when they hit the track and the band plays "My Old Kentucky Home," even with its unfortunate antebellum lyrics prettied up for modern consumption. And for those of us lucky enough to have been behind the scenes a few times, it is not the running of the Kentucky Derby that means the most, although there are moments - like Gary Stevens's operatic move with Silver Charm on the first turn in '97, or the effortless glide of Fusiachi Pegasus and Kent Desormeaux through the field in 2000 - that tend to live large and forever.

What I will miss most of all are those manic hours right after the race, when the job becomes to cover the war, whether it is the cold reality of Eight Belles, the giddy confusion tripped by Giacomo or Mine That Bird, or the harsh "what happeneds" of Hansel, Holy Bull, Point Given, or Bellamy Road.

That's when the eyes of the riders tell the tale as they come off the track and through the tunnel, muddied, sometimes shaken, all but one of them disappointed. Even for the older guys who've been there before, the Derby is never the same, and winning the race, to be first under the spires on that special day of days, is like nothing they can begin to describe. But they try, and it's a privilege to be there when they do.