The Kentucky Derby over the weekend took me back to 1994, to my first (and last) win as a jockey at the Cherry Hill race track (R.I.P.)
To be precise, as I learned at the time, I was a driver, not a jockey. I wasn’t on the horse’s back, but seated in a cart, or sulky.
This is known as harness racing, or trotters. The horses are standardbreds, a bit smaller than thoroughbreds used in flat racing.
I was there for a promotional “media night,” at which the horses were driven by men — only men, then — with names known to the public. I think I was the only print journalist, and I believe I remember contestants Vai Sikahema, Jerry Blavat, WIP’s Jody McDonald, among others. I wrote about it at the time, but Mr. Google came up empty. So I write this from memory.
We were competing for a $1,000 purse that would be awarded to a charity the winner named.
We gathered at the race track in the early evening and were fitted for our racing silks. Not surprisingly, few fit us, even though cart drivers aren’t as tiny as thoroughbred jockeys.
At the time I was 6-3 and 210 pounds and wound up in chocolate and white colors. Not my favorite combo, but, what are you going to do.
We posed for pictures, joked with each other, drew lots to select a horse, and then were taken down to the paddock to meet our horses.
“You’ve got the best horse,” one of track’s PR men whispered to me as we were led downstairs.
He pointed out the horse I had drawn — a stallion named Rebel Yell, who was standing with a trainer and groom near him. I had brought a carrot to make friends with him.
As I approached, the trainer shouted, “Stand back! Don’t touch him! He bites!”
I have been on dates that went like that.
“What’s wrong?,” I asked.
“He doesn’t like people,” the trainer replied. It’s like I had a twin.
As the other drivers petted and talked to their horses, I kept my distance, but got close enough to explain to Rebel Yell that he would be racing for Variety, the Children’s Charity, as if he would understand.
Rebel Yell looked at me. Horses have very large eyes and I could see hate in his.
“This horse is a winner,” the trainer told me. “Just let him do what he wants and he’ll win.”
Other drivers were getting into their carts. The trainer told me no, Rebel Yell doesn’t like riders getting aboard indoors, we’d have to wait until we were out on the track.
So then we are out on the track and I gingerly climbed into the seat, not wanting to annoy Rebel Yell any more than I already had.
The reins have loops at the end, which you grip, after bending forward at the waist, with your back stretched. You are not sitting back as if in a surrey. You are seriously stretched out.
The trainer told me to hold Rebel Yell tight, and to lean forward once the starting gate moved away, mounted on the back of a pickup. No need to say “giddyup,” no need to snap the reins, just lean forward “and let him do his thing. Turn him loose near the finish line.”
I nodded, adjusted my goggles and settled in. That’s not too much to remember.
I was about third or fourth from the rail, and when the pace car pulled away, I leaned forward about an inch and Rebel Yell was off, breaking clean and heading for the rail.
I didn’t know that I was in the lead, but I did know no one was in front of me. I shouted, “GO Rebel Yell” and got a mouth full of race track kicked up by Rebel Yell.
I was so glad I wasn’t behind six other horses.
Rebel Yell was striding smooth and fast, a very enjoyable ride for me.
About halfway through, I ventured a quick peek over my right shoulder and saw Jody McDonald moving up on me, yelling at his horse.
Having been in the lead the whole time, could I lose now?
I leaned forward another inch and — amazingly — Rebel Yell found a fifth gear and accelerated, leaving McDonald in the dust.
We won by several lengths, then slowed Rebel Yell gradually and turned him toward the winner’s circle, bumping into Jerry Blavat’s cart on the way.
I expected to be photographed in the winner’s circle sitting in the cart, with Rebel Yell draped in the customary flowers.
The trainer ordered me out of the cart.
“He doesn’t like the winner’s circle.”
Of course he doesn’t. I should have known.
Somewhere there is a photo of me crossing the finish line. I had a copy, but it’s hiding.
But the memory doesn’t fade of my victory driving an angry horse to benefit kids with disabilities.