Thought Piece: Kentucky Derby Day & Bookie Faves

Since I moved to the Lexington area, Derby Day has become my favorite “local holiday”.

I didn’t really follow horse racing except for occasionally catching the derby on TV. Then, when I moved, I met some wonderful people who introduced me to the racing world, and gave me some excellent tips on picking the derby winner out of the 20-horse field. I decided this would be the perfect time to share some of that advice, as well as some suggestions for those of you who are interested in horse racing and celebrating the annual event!

  • Follow the Road to the Kentucky Derby and if you plan on betting on the horses, take note of who places (that is, which horses come in first, second, and third) in each race. This will help you familiarize who is in contention!
  • Follow Steve Haskins’ weekly Derby Dozen article! He gives excellent tips and information on the horses, providing insight that isn’t readily available to the general public. (It’s not too late to scan through the last article of the year!)
  • Check out the Daily Racing Form headlines for analyses of each derby prep race to gain extra insight, as well as headline reports of the horses and their connections.
  • Watch the prep races! It’s more exciting to catch them in real time, but there are usually replays available to study. Keep an eye on your favorites, and note how they do. Did they run to the front? Come from behind? Get jostled and bumped by other horse and riders? Did they appear exhausted towards the end of the race? Knowing these details will help you predict how the horse will run in the large field of twenty horses at the derby.
  • Once you’ve picked a horse (or however many you want, I usually pick a top three and a long shot to bet on), learn more about them. I like to know who their sires (their fathers) are, who their owners are, and what farm bred them. They don’t call this the sport of kings for no reason, and names carry a lot of weight in the elite racing industry. I also like to find out specifically where the horses like to run in the racing field, and which position they draw in the starting gate. The numbers on the gate go from 1-20, and the lower the number, the closer to the inside of the track the horse is. The inside of the track is a shorter distance to run than the outside of the track, and therefore the horses who get to the inside quicker will have to exert less energy than the ones running toward the outside of the track. Sometimes, a bad position draw will be enough for me choose one horse over another as my absolute favorite.

When the first Saturday in May officially arrives, and if you’ve done your due diligence, then you’ll have a horse (or maybe a few) in mind that you’ll be ready to put your money on! This is where the fun begins! Now, I’m really, really terrible about betting money, mostly because I’d rather keep the money that I have rather than bet to make more. Also, I’m not a very lucky person in that sense of things. SO, I’m not going to tell you how to bet your money, but I advise you to check out Betting on Horse Racing for Dummies! Haha, I’m not calling anyone a dummy, but this is the simplest explanation I think you can get! Personally, I like to bet $2 to win on my favorite horses as a keepsake incase they win, and I’ll also spend the $6 for a win/place/show on my long-shot horse. Sometimes it pans out and I’ll make a few bucks, and sometimes it doesn’t but I can easily recoup that $6!

The other big part about derby day is the celebration of the event. Traditional points to note:

  • Attire- This includes donning classy spring dresses and over-the-top hats, seersucker suits and dockers, and basically pretending you are classy folk, even if you aren’t, haha!

  • Food & Drink- “derby pie” which includes bourbon, chocolate, and walnuts; mini hot browns, a strangely delish blend of bread, cheese, ham, and bacon; bourbon balls, which are like chocolate truffles with a kick; and of course, mint juleps. This is blasphemy I’m sure, but I actually don’t care for mint juleps, and from what I’ve heard, they’re an acquired taste. I prefer to just leave everything but the bourbon out, haha.

  • Singing “My Old Kentucky Home”- the official state song of the Kentucky commonwealth. There really is something about being with a thousands of fellow racegoers and drunkenly stumbling along the lyrics- it’s actually pretty emotional, though that could be the juleps. (I’m just kidding about the drunkenness.) Want to impress your friends at smaller gatherings? Here are the lyrics– sing along through the second chorus!
  • Roses- The derby is associated with two sayings: “The Run for the Roses” and “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports.” If you’re having a derby party at home, don’t forget to incorporate roses in the decorations mix!

Last but not least, if you’ve caught the racing bug after all the excitement of Derby, here is a recommended list of racing-related reading!

  • Ruffian, Burning From the Start by Jane Schwartz
  • Affirmed by Lou Sahadi
  • Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda by Dave Feldman
  • Secretariat by William Nack
  • Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand
  • Wild Ride by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach
  • Three Strides Before the Wire by Elizabeth Mitchell
  • The Horse God Built by Lawrence Scanlan

With all that said and done, I wish you all an excellent Derby! May all the horses and riders have a safe trip around the track, and may your bets win!


Saratoga Payback by Stephen Dobyns

When I checked this out of the library, I thought there was something familiar about it. Turns out, I’ve read another of Dobyns’ books, called Saratoga Backtalk. Both are ‘Charlie Bradshaw’ mysteries, where we follow private investigator Charlie as he tries to solve crimes in the horse industry. I know that the horse connection had a lot to do with picking them both out, but in all honesty, while reading these novels, you don’t care much about the horses. The reader is too wrapped up in the suspense of the mystery!

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(Photo Credit: Google Images)

In Saratoga Payback, Charlie is officially a retired PI (something tells me there is more to that story but it isn’t discussed in depth in this novel), yet he can’t help getting involved in the murder mystery that actually drops on his doorstep. Mickey Martin is found dead on Charlie’s sidewalk outside his home with his throat slashed and his tongue cut out. Charlie can’t quite figure out why, but he has a hunch that someone wanted Mickey to stop running his mouth, and wanted Charlie to know it too. So, trying his hardest to not meddle in police business, being that he no longer has his PI license and could go to jail for investigating, he takes on the “concerned citizen” role and tries to figure out why Mickey was brutally murdered.

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(Photo Credit: Don Nieman, Google Images)

It’s a quick paced novel, and very funny despite the scary situation, what with all the vicious slashing going on. As I was reading Payback, it made me recall why I liked Backtalk. Dobyns’ character driven plots make it easy to follow along but leave enough mystery to keep you turning the page. Charlie’s easy going personality and witty banter with his clients, friends, family, and informants make these novels an enjoyable read.


Wild Ride by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach

I’ve been wanting to read Wild Ride for almost four years now. Maybe three months after I moved to Lexington, a friend and coworker was reading it and said it was really good. Fast forward four years, and I finally got the chance to read it, and I honestly think that I wouldn’t have appreciated the book as much as I do now.

See, being in the Bluegrass has really broadened my Thoroughbred knowledge, and I’ve gained a deeper respect for the industry in the area. Despite what you read in the media- because there is always a dark side of each industry- it is truly regarded as the Sport of Kings for good reason. Generations of families taking the chance on the next superstar, and pouring hours, years, lifetimes of dedication (and money) into their horses. Not only have I gained a deeper understanding of the industry, but I’ve also learned my way around (for the most part) Lexington and the surrounding area. I haven’t gone full local (because I still can’t stop acting like a tourist or shake my New England accent), but while reading Wild Ride, I could easily picture the locations mentioned, or the events occurring.

The byline of Wild Ride is “The Tragic Fall of Calumet Farm, Inc., America’s Premier Racing Dynasty”, but Auerbach doesn’t just rehash the demise- she delves into the history of Calumet from the very origins of it’s founder, William Monroe Wright.

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(Photo Credit: Google Images)

The reader learns about the self-made businessman who eventually decided to move from Chicago to the Bluegrass and start his own harness horse breeding operation. From there, his son Warren takes over the family operation, despite being at odds with the way his father ran the place. He converts what becomes Calumet Farm into a thoroughbred operation, and an empire is born. Though strong in business practice, the younger Wright had a lot of horsemanship skills to learn, but his progress turned out derby winners and two Triple Crown winners. Unfortunately, his health took a turn for the worse, and when he passed on, his wife and son became benefactors of his estate, and his wife Lucille inherited the farm, along with gigantic sums of money.

Lucille decides to keep the farm, and in doing so blossoms into one of the social elite. She meets Gene Markey and remarries, and the Markeys, adding a touch of glamour that the Wright men did not achieve, take Calumet to up the social ladder. While Lucille enjoyed being  Lady of Calumet, her son Warren Jr. was moved to the wayside. He didn’t care for the farm life, and had many peculiarities that made him difficult to work with. On top of that, there was some discrepancies about him being the legitimate son of Warren Wright Sr. Lucille did very little to defend her son because he was seen as an embarrassment in her circle. This feud caused much heartache for his wife and four children, and eventually the Wright family became estranged to the Markey family, most so after Warren Jr. succumbs to an early death.

Knowing fully about the family feud, Warren Jr.’s eldest daughter, Cindy, marries a man named J.T. Lundy. Determined to run Calumet, he pressures and fights with Lucille to run the farm. Lucille and Lundy stubbornly spar, neither one giving up, until Lucille’s age catches up to her. Through the will of Warren Sr., the farm is finally turned over the Wright children, and because of their disinterest in the farm due to all the past heartache, Lundy takes over in care of the Wrights. From here, as secretary Margaret Glass notes, Armageddon begins with the fall of Calumet.

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(Photo Credit: Google Images)

If you live in the area, you can still drive past the farm, and see for yourself the images that Auerbach describes- the white double fencing, the devils-red trim on white washed barns, the acres of famous Kentucky bluegrass dotted with horses. But the Calumet you see isn’t the dynasty that existed prior to 1990, and reading about the fall brought chills to my spine.

If you’re a horse junky like me, or interested in historical novels (Kentucky history in particular), horse racing and breeding, or crime novels, Wild Ride is a must read.

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

“She gave me a complicated smile. “You’ve heard the joke, haven’t you? Are you married or do you live in Kenya?“”

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(Photo Credit: Google Images)

When my book-loving coworker suggested I read this novel, it didn’t take me long to reserve it at the library, nor did it take me long to read it. 350 pages, each one full of a romantic view of life in the 1920’s British East Africa as experienced by Beryl Clutterbuck. Though a fictional novel, Clutterbuck, who becomes Markham after her second marriage, is actually a nonfictional character, as well as the others described in the novel. When I finished reading, I couldn’t stop myself from doing some more historical research, trying to piece together the timeline and get better images of the people involved. I love when a book does that to me- inspires me to learn more.

Anyways, we are introduced to Beryl as a young girl living with her family in colonial Kenya. Her father is running a horse farm as a trainer and breeder of racing thoroughbreds, and Beryl wants to follow in his footsteps. When her mother and brother leave to return to England, she decides Kenya is her home, and she wants to stay with her father on the farm. As she reaches her teen years, she rebels against her father’s wishes to become a more suitable woman by taunting her new governess and running away from boarding school. She isn’t interested in becoming the expected civilized housewife. Growing up in the bush, she’s followed her best friend Kibii step for step as he learned from his tribe how to be a warrior. Matching his courage and skills, Beryl knows she can take on any man’s job with determination and hard work, and succeed. However, when she reaches the age of sixteen, the tables are turned when she learns her father’s business has gone bankrupt, and he must sell the farm and train at another stable, leaving Beryl to decide if she should stay on the farm, go work for her father, or become a wife.

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(Photo Credit: Google Images)

She decides to marry Jock, a man who just moved to the colony near her father’s farm. The merge leaves Beryl with her father’s horses, but also with a loveless relationship. When it becomes obvious that the marriage isn’t going to work out, Beryl decides to separate from Jock to go work as a trainer on her friend and mentor’s farm. A turning point for Beryl, she becomes the first English licensed female horse trainer (at least in Kenya, maybe the world). As her reputation builds for her training, she also gains a reputation for being a nontraditional wife, if you catch my drift. Despite her successes at the racetrack, her personal life causes her difficulties in keeping clients. After some time, she requests a divorce from her husband. He isn’t willing to grant the divorce because he doesn’t want to be seen as a man who can’t control his wife, nor take a hit to his reputation. They fight- him by drinking and getting into physical altercations, her by holding her ground and occasionally another man. As her relationship with Jock flames out, a new one with Denys Finch- Hatton fires up.

While reading, not only does the personal drama keep things interesting, but the romance of living in such wild country in Africa draws you in. I loved imagining the red clay, the safari trips, the rain season, the flamingo flocks near where Beryl exercised her horses… all the imagery was lovely, even in terrifying moments. Because of McLain’s wordsmithery, I was living right with Beryl in the environment that she loved so much.

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(Photo Credit: Google Images)

With so much depth and strength to the characters, the setting, and the overall complexity of human relationships, I’d recommend it to anyone, and especially for those with the additional interest in the female empowerment and equality. I’m amazed at what barriers Beryl broke back in the 1920/1930s, of how much has changed since pioneers like her broke traditional female roles, and of how we are still pushing to get through the glass ceiling today. Circling the Sun is a must read.

The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss

It took me about two days to tear through this ‘modern’ western. Written in 2007 yet set in 1917, this novel was meant for horse girls like myself- dreamers of what life in the wild west would be like.

The novel follows central protagonist Martha Lesson as she set out into Elwha County in search of horses to break for ranch work. Leaving hometown Pendleton and an abusive father behind, Martha is determined to make her dream of riding through unfenced, open, wild west country come true. Though unsure at first, she finds work with George and Louise Bliss on their farm, and eventually they help her start a riding circle in the county, breaking and riding horses from farm to farm. They introduce her to many old time and new settlers who become prominent figures in her new life, and eventually she comes upon reason to stay.

It’s a lovely little book that has excitement, humor, hard life, and romance. Gloss did a great job weaving in the history of settling the west with the then current events surrounding World War I, and still keeping the plot moving forward with the interaction between the characters.

I think I’ll be keeping this one on my bookshelves.

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

I’ve finally gotten my stack of books to be read down to three, with Out Stealing Horses included. I don’t remember where I got the book, but I think it may have been a gift. No matter, since it had horses in it, I figured it wouldn’t hurt taking up a space on my bookshelves.

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(Photo Credit: Google Images)

But the problem is, I finally cracked the book open and read… and I really can’t stand it.

Now, some people are really into the type of writing style that Petterson (as translated by Anne Born) uses, where the text is almost a stream of conscious thought (prose).  I’m not one of those people. It’s hard for me to follow along and in this case, there’s flashbacks that take you from present to past and in doing so, causes confusion and disrupts the reader’s understanding.

For those that really want the summary: Trond Sander, an almost 70 year old man, helps his neighbor look for his lost dog in late one night. After moving out in the remote area, the sudden companionship of the neighbor throws Trond back into memories of his younger years with his mischievous friend Jon.

As I said, there are some out there that love that kind of writing style, and if you are one of them, check this book out and tell me what you think. But if you are like me, I would pass on this one. As is, I only got about 20 pages in. Maybe I quit too early, but in reading the book summary on the back cover, it sounds like there wasn’t much more to the story than what I figured out in the first 20 pages.


Ruffian: Burning from the Start by Jane Schwartz

Another one for the horse fans. If you follow horse racing, you more than likely have heard of Ruffian and her tragic ending. But whether you have or haven’t heard of this filly, reading this novel will make you a fan of her.

April 17, 1972, one of the racing world’s most impressive athletes was born. Her bloodlines traced back to equine royalty- and as a friend of mine would say, she was practically born with a tiara. Born a big, strong, healthy foal who later grew into an impressively built yearling, her connections started to take notice of her. And as she was just learning the ropes of being handled and ridden, a certain relative of hers swept the 1973 Triple Crown. As 1974 approached, the filly made her way to North Carolina from Kentucky to learn how to become a racehorse. Trainer Frank Whiteley knew after a few sessions that he had something special in his care:

“The speedball, the beauty, the female, the freak.”

Shipped to New York, she began her racing career at age two (as many do), and gained her name, Ruffian. She began blowing competition away and setting track record after track record, eating up the ground. But as she ran, Whiteley couldn’t help but worry about her powerhouse body set on her dainty legs, and this proved a true concern when a slight hairline fracture in her ankle caused her debut season “came to an abrupt end”.

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(Photo Credit: Google Images)

But 1974 gave way to high hopes for her three-year-old season in 1975. She came back with vengeance, sweeping the filly Triple Crown. That year, Foolish Pleasure, a three-year-old colt, took the Kentucky Derby and became a heavy favorite for the rest of the Triple Crown series (he didn’t take the crown though, coming in second in the following two legs of the series). Due to their successes, there became a cry for a match race between Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure- a battle of the sexes. As the end of the season drew near, the date was finally set and the race was on.  Tragically, nobody would ever know the outcome.

Now, if you don’t know what happens next and want to know, stop reading this and go get this book. You do that, and you’ll understand exactly what I’m about to say, and you’ll appreciate it more.

Those of you still with me- when I picked up this book, I was still new to the racing industry. I appreciated the athleticism, the thrill, the legends that rose above the rest. I had heard of Ruffian, knew of her demise. But when I read the lines “Ruffian has broken down! Ruffian has broken down!” I had to stop reading because I became so emotional that I was choked up and fighting tears. Here I am, decades after this filly left her mark that day at Belmont, and her she is in black and white on these pages, leaving her mark on me now. I’ve still got a long ways to go when it comes to learning about the racing industry, and even more so about the equine industry. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that these magnificent animals have heart beyond comprehension. That horse loved to run. That horse fought her own body to finish that race. Everyone in the stands and following the race that day was impacted because they witnessed immense greatness followed by immense destruction.

Schwartz successfully reconstructs the brightest and darkest moments of Ruffian’s life. Anyone who reads this novel comes as close as I think they can to understanding how that felt.

*6/19/2018* I found some video footage via and I thought I would share. This filly still takes my breath away decades after she’s been long gone. You can find the tragic film of her last race in the link above, if you choose to. I prefer to watch the good times instead- one of her taking the win for the Acorn Stakes.