05/03/2010 12:00AM

You had to be there, or so I've heard

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CARLSBAD, Calif. - Post time for the Kentucky Derby on Saturday is around 3:25 in the afternoon, Pacific Daylight Time, which will still give me a chance to get the lawn mowed by sunset.

Back in Louisville, as twilight falls, I fully expect there to be Coors Light flowing like the Ohio, as Mike Pegram and partners celebrate a victory by their champion colt Lookin At Lucky. He'll need to beat Sidney's Candy to get the money, and Todd Pletcher still could have something to say with Super Saver. But Lucky, despite the 1-hole, is the kind of road-tested warrior you want in a 20-horse scramble. A sealed, wet track should appeal to a son of Smart Strike (see Curlin, Monmouth Park, Breeders' Cup). And if his jock, Garrett Gomez, can tap into his inner Gary Stevens and take no prisoners, then the result should please a lot of folks.

I hope it will be a memorable running, for the sake of those investing their time, their horses, and their money in the Kentucky economy. I hope someday to look back in longing that I missed it, that epic knock-down, drag-out stretch run between Lookin At Lucky and Sidney's Candy. I hope I can add it to the list, because there are at least five Derbies in my lifetime I would have loved to have witnessed first hand.

I'm going to give myself a pass on 1955. I was 4, and even though every child attending a public school in California was required to recite the pedigree of Swaps along with the Pledge of Allegiance, I'm not sure I would have had the proper appreciation for the way Bill Shoemaker lullabyed Eddie Arcaro and Nashua into a 1 1/4-mile nap that day to win by cozy daylight.

Nine years later, though, the racing bug had bitten hard, and I was deeply in thrall to Hill Rise, that big-shouldered Santa Anita Derby winner raised up there in California's Central Valley. My guy looked even bigger alongside Northern Dancer, but he couldn't get by the little tank and broke my adolescent heart. Later, I learned that if Don Pierce had been aboard Hill Rise instead of Shoemaker, his replacement, things would have been different. But then, no one asked Bill Hartack.

In 1969, I was 18, not in Vietnam, and fully licensed to drive, so what was my excuse for not following the unbeaten, untested Majestic Prince to Kentucky? Gas was, what, a nickel a gallon? A few Wonder Bread sandwiches washed down with RC Cola, and I would have been there for a true gem of a horse race, all the chaff blown away by the presence of the four tons-the-best colts in the country. Nine runners, that's it, unimaginable by modern standards, and the race came off like a Broadway play, with Majestic Prince, Arts and Letters, and Dike lapped on each other at the end.

Secretariat's 1973 Derby has become one of those shared memories by the sports culture at large. I wasn't there, but it feels like I was because of the constant reminders. Of course, had I been in the crowd, I would have taken the 5-2 on Sham, since I'd watched him all winter long out West and could hardly believe he could lose. It was my first year working at the track, and my Santa Anita boss Dan Smith was back there on the Louisville scene, servings as eyes and ears for the Californians. Late Wednesday morning I got a call, a few hours after Secretariat breezed five-eighths in 58 and 3.

"We in trouble," Smith said. No kidding.

Historic as it was, I had no eyes to attend the 100th Derby in 1974. That was the year 23 ran (and 22 finished), formalizing the idea of running in the Derby just for the sake of running. The crowd that day was 163,628, which sounded more like the numbers for a religious pilgrimage rather than a sporting event, but with gin. There was no report on how many of them made it to the wire.

But 1978. You had to be there in 1978 to bow and cheer as Affirmed and Alydar, racing's Esau and Jacob, battled over their birthright. Affirmed was always the better colt, but not by much, and if you weren't there for that Derby, the excuse had to be good. I was in Paris, learning how little French I knew. It's a nice place, and I guarantee I was the only guy in town who wished he was in Louisville, at least for the day.

Finally, while I hate being cold more than being hungry, tired or lice-infested, I should have been in the frigid house in 1989, when Sunday Silence and Easy Goer finally met in a war of muddy attrition. It was 43 degrees at post time. There was a 20-mile-an-hour headwind down the stretch and a nine-minute delay before the start when Triple Buck sprung a shoe. The final time was 2:05 and forever. It wasn't a Derby. It was Wagner. Just ask Alex Hassinger, Charlie Whittingham's assistant, who ponied Sunday Silence to the post and had to hold onto the fiery colt for those nine long minutes when all the jockeys were told to dismount.

"I had never ponied a horse to the post in the afternoon before in my life," said Hassinger, who went on to win two Breeders' Cup races as a trainer. "So here I am doing it in the Kentucky Derby, with a horse who I think is going to win, and before we load into the gate the jock jumps off. Was I nervous? Hell yes! When I finally let him go into the gate my hand was numb."

Warm and dry, back home in L.A., I found myself otherwise occupied that week with the death of a friend. Joe Manzi came West with Whittingham in the 50s. He galloped horses such as Porterhouse, Corn Husker, and Mister Gus, and then hung his own shingle. Champion Roving Boy was Manzi's best, but there were others, and he was a long way from finished when his heart stopped, just shy of turning 54.

On Tuesday of Derby week, in a Catholic church not far from Santa Anita, I delivered Joe's eulogy. Four days later, Whittingham and Sunday Silence said adios in their own special way. It was a big racing world that week, of which the Derby was a fitting part.