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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

Gray Matter: Kentucky Derby memories

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The heart-warming story of the stunning Kentucky Derby victory of Barbaro, trained by Michael Matz, hero of the Flight 232 disaster, gripped the attention of many of us here in Siouxland the weekend of May 6.

I loved it, but I have always been a huge fan of the Churchill Downs classic. I've listened to it or watched it for as long as I can remember. Old "softy" that I am, each year when the hunting horn is sounded and the jockeys ride toward the starting gate to the strains of My Old Kentucky Home, I get teary-eyed.

In case you missed it, here is the part of the story, which made it so meaningful for us in this area. On that fateful July 19, 1989 flight that ended in flames in a Sioux City cornfield, Matz and his fiancÚ, now his wife, were seated on the plane near three youngsters who were flying from Philadelphia to Denver to visit their grandparents. When the plane went down, they helped the kids out and then Matz and another man went back into the burning plane and rescued another youngster trapped inside.

It seems there had been minimal contact between Matz and the three siblings since the crash. However, when Churchill Downs, NBC and others learned the story, they contacted the "kids," now grown, and brought them to the race. That way, we all got to see them sitting there in the owner's box, with trainer Matz and his family, helping cheer the big bay colt to victory.

I have never attended the actual Derby, but some years ago my husband and I were with a tour group privileged to visit the famed racetrack. It was a damp, hazy morning in early spring. Through the mist, against the backdrop of the fabled Twin Towers, we could see the trainers exercising those handsome horses. For me, that was the stuff from which spine-chills are fashioned !

Another Derby story I love to recall, happened far from Kentucky. Some months ago I told you of a visit we made to Marfa, Texas, during their Centennial. At that time a consortium of wealthy Texans had bought a promising colt, named her Marfa, and readied her for the Kentucky Derby. Expectations ran high after a successful run in California racing venues. Huge screens were erected at their fairgrounds so Centennial celebrants could watch their namesake in action.

After hearing all about it earlier in the week, we had traveled on to the Big Bend and into Mexico at Del Rio. By Saturday we were headed back to Fredericksburg across a wide-open expanse of West Texas desert. To our consternation, we couldn't even pick up a broadcast on our car radio. As race time approached, we came upon a forlorn little service station out there in the middle of nowhere. Stopping, we explained our plight. With true Texas hospitality, the owner invited us into his tiny office and gave us the only two chairs amidst the clutter. It was there we watched the 1983 Run for the Roses. Marfa didn't win, but she ran a respectable race, and we got to view it, as best we could, on that tiny, grainy screen -- one of my most unique Derby Day memories!

Much as I love the races, I have never mastered the art of wagering on the horses. I am such a dismal failure at anything mathematical that I'm sure it's a blessing. But while we're on the subject, I must tell you of my first encounter with what I still think of as an addicted gambler.

The summer after our college graduation, two friends and I worked in Chicago. My job was as relief Section Supervisor in the old Fair Department Store. While working in the hosiery department, I got to know a charming motherly widow named Mrs. Wilson, who clerked there. Looking back, I expect she was in her mid-fifties, but from my vantage point of 22, she seemed OLD! (My, how one's viewpoint changes!)

Anyway, I was mildly surprised by the regularity with which a dapper, friendly gentleman, about her same age, stopped by to see her. I knew he wasn't buying ladies' stockings that often, so I finally asked one of the other gals if that were Wilson's gentleman friend. The young clerk laughed and assured me, "Oh my no! That's Wilson's "bookie". He stops by most every day on his way to the track." I learned nothing more about my fellow worker's seeming obsession, but I still recall my naive shock at that revelation. If Wilson were still around I'm certain she would have had some money on Barbaro in the Derby this past May 6.