One of my favorite days is always the first Saturday in May when hundreds of private jets land in Louisville, Kentucky, and limousines arrive for a ride over to beautiful Churchill Downs.
The Kentucky Derby has delivered some of the best stories in sports history. Winners become losers. Losers become winners.
And, on rare occasion, a hero emerges to inspire the world to believe that, on any given day, anyone can win. Seabiscuit, a star that inspired two movies and a monstrous bestselling book, brightened American hearts in the darkest days of the Great Depression.
On Derby Day, I start watching at 11 a.m. and, although no woman loves hats more than I do, it’s not the remarkable creations that draw me. It’s the stories behind the animals. I listen to them all then decide which horse I will be cheering.
In the last Derby, an owner, family and trainer, were grinning ear-to-ear early that morning. “It’s hard to believe we’re here!”
The horse, Rich Strike, had not made the race. They were preparing to load him when another horse had to be withdrawn from the 21-horse field. Rich Strike was entered with less than 60 seconds of entry time left.
It wasn’t just their childlike enthusiasm that grabbed me. I saw something familiar that felt like home. They weren’t expensively dressed nor spoke in sophisticated language.
We country folks can spot each other from across a crowded, hay-filled barn.
They were off to the races and Rich Strike was last — but he was my horse and I was sticking with him, training my eyes to focus on him in a mashup of bobbing hats and long legs. It wasn’t looking good. Rich Strike was running 17th as he came out of the final turn.
Then, magic happened. He gritted his bit. His eyes fired up wildly and his skinny legs took off in a run that looked more like a bumble than a gallop. It wasn’t finesse. It was determination. The other horses trotted gallantly, elegantly. Not Rich Strike.
Again, something looked wildly familiar.
“Tink, look at that horse stomp. It looks like a backwoods boy who is runnin’ away from the mountains as fast as he can go.”
I’ve rewatched his astounding, history-making victory dozens of times. I know that run. I know that desperation. I know that disregard for the rules or a refusal to bow to the higher classes. I’ve witnessed it many times.
As it turned out, there was a stark Appalachian story in Rich Strike’s past. His trainer, Eric Reed, is the son of a man named Herbie who, too, is much loved in the racing world. His son insisted that his father, his hero, share Victory Lane.
They cried. Again, I saw a kinship I felt I shared with them as though they were blood related. Three weeks later, Tink found a story in Sports Illustrated and forwarded it to me. It explained my intuition.
Herbie grew up in dirt-poor hopelessness, in the cruel Appalachians. His mother died when he was 5, then, at age 9, he hitched a ride on a cattle truck and left behind the hollers where his bloodline ran deep like a vein of rusted silver.
“I came up by myself,” Herbie Reed told the magazine. At 14, he was working in the horse business then, later, teaching his son about the magnificent beasts who seem simple but, yet, are so complex.
What I saw that day was the truth — Rich Strike had been ingrained with a scrappiness that only a mountain survivor can fathom.
I know because I am the daughter of a man much like Herbie Reed. He ran from those mountains at the age of 13, racing at a full gallop into a better life.
Desperation has a different gait than discipline. That’s how I was able to recognize our people in that horse.
[Ronda Rich a bestselling Southern author. Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.]