When I moved to the Nuggets beat early in my journalism career, in a time when that meant traveling with the team on commercial flights, legendary trainer Bob “Chopper” Travaglini told me two things.
One: “Piss me off, kid, and your bag’s in Tawian.”
Two: He occasionally would let me know in advance of a trip where he thought it might be a good idea for me to reserve rental cars.
It usually had nothing to do with getting to the hotels, arenas and airports.
That was so I could take Chopper to and from horse tracks, from coast to coast.
I already had covered the ponies some at Littleton’s sprawling Centennial Race Track, which was between Federal and Santa Fe at Belleview, in an area of major commercial development now.
But it was enjoyable to go to other tracks and marvel that the same wise guys seemed to be at every track. They were the guys arguing with their buddies in the mutuel lines, bemoaning the “woulda,” “coulda” and “shouldas” and grousing that the licenses of the jockeys on the horses that let them down should be revoked before the next race. They also seemed to be at the other tracks I visited in my later newspaper travels after leaving the Nuggets beat, and in occasional junkets to tracks on vacation — most notably Santa Anita Park and Belmont Park.
Now, years later, the first Saturday in May is approaching. And that means only one thing …
The Kentucky Derby.
I’ve never been to Louisville for a Derby. Yes, it’s on the list, one of the few major events I haven’t been able to check off. I’d even be willing to drink the most foul of libations, the mint julep, as part of the experience.
The favorite in the 2018 Derby is Justify. The Bob Baffert-trained winner of the Santa Anita Derby didn’t race as a 2-year-old. The last horse to win the Derby after opening its career as a 3-year-old was Apollo.
That’s a trend.
The Derby is one of those phenomena that defies rational explanation, other than the power of a bandwagon effect. The two minutes between the opening of the starting gates and the winner crossing the finish line don’t look much different than what takes place in thousands of races annually from coast to coast, at tracks both major and minor.
Yet it’s a short-lived flashback to when horse racing and boxing coverage often outstripped the attention paid to, say, the NFL in the nation’s major sports sections.
It’s the Derby, darn it.
There are hours of buildup, especially if you watch the rest of the card on cable before the broadcast switches to NBC.
There are portraits of owners, trainers, jockeys, and — yes — the horses.
By the time the Churchill Downs bugler plays the call to the post and the horses come on the track, it can almost seem as if you’re watching a Saturday Night Live parody. But you’re willingly going along with the skit, and it continues through the race and in the immediate aftermath as the winner’s chances of going on to also win the Preakness and Belmont and the Triple Crown already are broken down.
There’s still more to the sport, much more, than the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup races in November.
That includes at Arapahoe Park in Aurora, which has carved out a nice little niche as Colorado’s only track of note, running from May 26 to August 12 this year. Live racing is a loss leader for the track’s ownership, which also operates or licenses satellite wagering facilities taking wagers on races around the country. The state requires live racing at Arapahoe Park as part of the tradeoff.
Over the years, I’ve enjoyed writing about the track’s Runyonesque characters, whether jockeys or trainers. The state’s horse racing community of breeders and owners also is full of intriguing personalities.
None of them were connected to a Kentucky Derby winner.
They still can dream, though. Dreams are the only sure thing at the track — whether Churchill Downs or Arapahoe Park or anywhere else.
I’ve got a horse right here, and I’m pointing right at his past performance lines in the Daily Racing Form.
His name is Bolt d’Oro.
He’s owned and trained by Mick Ruis.
And he’s going to win.
* * *
Terry Frei of the Greeley Tribune writes two commentaries a week for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the national champion 1942 Wisconsin Badgers and their wartime heroics, and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age.” His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are at terryfrei/oncolorado.
Terry Frei’s MHS Commentary/Story Archive:
Magazine: Gateway High Olympian Stephen Garbett