Wiedmer: Ware worked Derby that almost wasn't

Wiedmer: Ware worked Derby that almost wasn't

May 3rd, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Having quite possibly just won a daily double at one of England's finest turf courses, the incomparable Winston Churchill once said of our most majestic four-legged friends: "There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man."

And never do horses stir more men and women than today, the first Saturday in May, with the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby.

At 6:24 EDT this evening, 20 of the world's finest 3-year-old thoroughbreds will break from Churchill Downs' famed starting gates (the name has nothing to do with the legendary British prime minister, by the way), all hopeful of finishing the mile-and-a-quarter race in under two minutes.

Let one of them accomplish that goal and it should be enough to deliver him the blanket of red roses reserved for the winner, since only three horses in Derby history -- Secretariat, Sham (which finished second to Secretariat in 1973) and 2001 winner Monarchos -- have broken 120 seconds.

Such uncertainty and intrigue is why the race often is called the most exciting two minutes in sports. And why, for all the troubles currently befalling the horse-racing industry in general, the Derby largely has been immune to such concerns, its long history and once-a-year charm enough to keep it among the nation's top 11 non-NFL watched events in 2013.

In fact, last year's victory by Orb was the third-most watched of the past 24 Derbies, trailing only Sunday Silence's win in 1989 and Super Saver's triumph in 2010. NBC expects similarly strong ratings this time around.

But even the Derby almost was forced to take a year off in 1945 thanks to World War II and the United States government's concern over fuel supplies being unnecessarily depleted by large-scale travel to sporting events.

"I grew up within four miles of Churchill Downs," said Dr. Thomas Ware, the retired former head of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga English Department. "I turned 16 that year. The war in Europe had just ended earlier that spring, though the war in the Pacific was still going strong. The government had shut down horse racing that year due to what it termed 'needless transportation.'"

But Col. Matt Winn, the Churchill Downs president from 1938 until his death in 1949, could be quite persuasive. He had convinced the government to allow the running of the Derby in 1944 by encouraging only Louisville residents to attend.

Now, with the war in Europe over, Winn, according to Ware, "used his prestige to keep the Derby for 1945. And it came off beautifully."

But there was one huge difference. While the Derby had been staged on the first Saturday in May for every year since 1932, the 1945 Derby was held on June 9. And because he'd turned 16, Ware also got to work it, selling beer that normally was priced "for 10 cents" for $1 each in the infield. More than 65,000 showed up, many of them military personnel just home from the war.

Nor did Ware just work the Derby. He had the winner, betting on Hoop Jr., with the grand jockey Eddie Arcaro aboard.

"I didn't know much about Hoop Jr. -- he wasn't the favorite -- but everybody knew Arcaro. He was the best jockey of his time," Ware recalled.

So he put $2 on the horse and collected $9.20 when it won.

Some 69 years later, Ware still "gets chills down my spine" when the post parade begins and the University of Louisville band breaks into Stephen Foster's matchless "My Old Kentucky Home."

And like most native Kentuckians, he prefers his own mint juleps to the watery ones offered at the track.

"I've even got my own mint bed in the back yard," he said.

Every Derby has its own colorful stories. This one is no exception. There's the feel-good story of Vinceremos, which means "to conquer or overcome" in Latin.

But Vinceremos also is the name of a therapeutic riding center in Florida that uses horseback riding to help children and adults with disabilities. Because Mac Walden, the son of Winstar Farm CEO Elliott Walden -- whose Pettway cousins call Chattanooga home -- worked at the center last year, he invited students and volunteers to meet the horse when it trained in Florida earlier this year.

According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, one of those students -- 4-year-old Adison Gobardhan -- even went into Vinceremos's stall.

"We understand these horses are bred to be fiery and feisty," Vinceremos Center founder Ruth Menor told the paper. "But she went in the stall and he dropped his head and let her pat him. He knew exactly what he needed to do."

What many in the Vinceremos Center family have decided they need to do is be at Churchill today in hopes that their favorite thoroughbred can win the first leg of the Triple Crown.

But if you don't like that story, try this one: The trainer for pre-race favorite California Chrome is 77-year-old Art Sherman. In 1955, Sherman was an exercise rider for Swaps, which upset the great Nashua in one of the better Derbies ever.

In the four days leading up to that race, Sherman slept in the hay beside Swaps to keep him calm. After that race the closest thing Sherman has had to a professional high rivaling this one is when then-Vice President Richard Nixon handed him a trophy at a Maryland handicap race when Sherman was a jockey.

"We'd both gone to Whittier (Calif.) High, though Nixon was quite a bit older than me," Sherman told the media earlier this week. "The newspaper headlines that day read: High school reunion in the winner's circle."

If another Sherman horse reaches the winner's circle today, he'll become the oldest trainer to saddle a Derby champ.

Yet should Vinceremos conquer the field, expect the winner's circle reunion to send chills down the spines of far more than Dr. Ware, which is really what horse racing needs most.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com