McLean: The Day I Fell in Love with the Kentucky Derby

Sporting News Derby 1972 Cover
This is the cover of The Sporting News’ 1972 Kentucky Derby issue.

The year was 1972. I was sitting at home watching the Kentucky Derby festivities, just like we always did on the First Saturday in May. Nothing special, really. Mom cooked lunch. Dad posted up in “his chair.” We all shared the newspaper to pick “our horse.”

And, we all got ready to watch the “Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.” About five hours in advance.

It was our family thing. Only time all year that we huddled up and watched the races together. It was like waiting for the ball to drop on New Year’s Eve, or the rocket launches for NASA. Or the Conventions when both major political parties nominated their respective candidate for the Presidential election.

All those events meant it was prime television time in the McLean household. But my personal favorite was Derby Day.

I can remember watching Kauai King in 1966, ridden to victory by jockey Don Brumfield – who I later got to know when I covered the races at Keeneland and the little, big man was still riding. And, winning.

I remember Proud Clarion, with Bobby Ussery in the irons, pulling away to victory in 1967. I later had a small ownership piece in a filly that came out of a Proud Clarion mare.

I remember rooting for Corn Off The Cob, who ran 7th in the 1970 Kentucky Derby. Stuck to the tube, I watched and wished. I loved that name and I still love corn off the cob. He fell farther and farther behind as Dust Commander, My Dad George and High Echelon pulled away to hit the board.

I can remember the drama associated with Canonero II upset victory in 1971. Crazy stuff. Made for TV drama.

But the year that I fell in love, for keeps, with the Kentucky Derby was 1972. Meadow Stud, a farm in Virgina, had a colt by the name of Riva Ridge ready for the Run for the Roses. I had followed him closely. I had watched his prep races. I had studied his form. When we finished lunch and headed into the TV room for our “Derby Day Experience,” I had a confidence like no other time.

Dad looked at the paper and picked his horse. Hold Your Peace was his selection. That was him. Mom was next. She scanned over the entries. Her selection was Sensitive Music. She loved the name and she still loves sensitive music to this day. Goes every year to the National Gospel Quartet Convention – held in Louisville.

I was next. Didn’t take a second. Riva Ridge, I blurted out. Both mom and dad, startled a bit, took a second glance. “You sound confident,” they said, almost in unison.

I was. Loved that horse. Loved the way he ran. Loved the silks. And, I loved the way jockey Ron Turcotte rode, and the flashy trainer Lucien Lauren.

That same group would make history together. But that was a year later with a horse named Secretariat. Everybody knows that story. It is the essence of horse racing and worthy of every accolade and every stirring memory.

But my memory was Riva Ridge.

Sure enough, Riva Ridge won that day. For a year, I got to claim the crown in the McLean house. I wore it proudly. When my weekly edition of The Sporting News came the next week, I grabbed it and I devoured every word of every sentence. It was a story I still remember.

Like many things in my life, I kept that sacred edition of The Sporting News. Still have it to this day. There’s a picture of it on my cell phone now. My buddy, Quin Welch, will try to put it on this site. But it was then that I knew that some day, some how I was going to go to The Kentucky Derby.

As luck would have it, I got that chance. After joining The Lexington Herald-Leader in 1977, I got the chance to cover and write about The Derby. After that, as the Executive Vice President of the KTA-KTOB, I got a table on Millionaires Row. A bit later, a got a box on the Third Floor Clubhouse and both of my kids joined me on Derby Day.

A year ago, I had my best time ever at The Derby. Thanks to my good friend Elizabeth Wester, who works governmental affairs for the track and the corporation, I got to buy a 6-seat box right on the rail, near the finish line. As the horses walked over from the backside, I put my hand out and got to touch the flesh of Dale Romans’ entry Brody’s Cause. It was only the beginning.

It wasn’t long after that we all stood and sang, in unison, 150,000 people strong, “My Old Kentucky Home.” I shed a tear every time. Without fail.

When the horses came down the stretch for the run into the first turn, you could literally feel the ground move under your feet. The thunder of the hooves drew louder and then softer. The magic was real. Not David Cooperfield real. It was real.

Every Derby has a special meaning now. For the first time in a long time, my wife, Leigh Ann, is not here in Louisville and we are not heading to the track. Her sister just had a baby. And, in a way, I did, too – it’s called The Pressbox at the Louisville Thoroughbred Society.”

 I sent LA a text this morning. I attached the song, “Ain’t No Sunshine When You’re Gone.” Thought it was appropriate. After all it has rained buckets, and I have missed LA like it is nobody’s business.

But like every Derby, I got up this morning and I pulled out that old edition of The Sporting News. It’s yellowed and the paper a little weaker. But the words and the pictures are as strong as ever.

Damn I love Derby Day. And, I hope you do, too. According to Dan Fogelberg, it is “The chance of a lifetime and the lifetime of chance.” According to me, it is the best of times.

He’s an extremely talented horse,” Lukas said Monday morning. “If he’s fit, I think I can drop right in to the deep end of the pool and take on the seasoned horses because he’s got a beautiful mind and he handles racing very well. Very easy horse to train. Normally you say, ‘Boy, we need some experience.’ But I’m not so sure I can’t put a strong work into him and run him where I want to.”

Hall of Fame Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, about this 3YO Derby hopeful, Sporting Chance, who got his second serious work at Oaklawn Park on Monday, Martin Luther King Day. With rider Gary Stevens up, he breezed an impressive half-mile in :47.60. He will be pointed to the $500,000 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn on Feb. 19
  • Gene McLean

    Gene McLean

    Gene McLean began his professional career in 1977 as a sportswriter and columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., and was recognized as one of the state’s best writers, winning the prestigious “Sportswriter of the Year” honor in 1985. Now the President and Publisher of The Pressbox, McLean sets ...

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