My Derby Week 2008

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Bob McQuerry's Stables, as seen from my hotel room across the street/Photo by Rhonda Lane
Bob McQuerry’s Stables, as seen from my hotel room across the street/Photo by Rhonda Lane

Last year, I was in Kentucky during Derby. That’s different from being in Kentucky for the Derby.

A lot happens in Louisville during Derby Week. The Kentucky Derby Festival offers fireworks and steamboat races. And that’s just in Louisville.

I, on the other hand, went to Harrodsburg. I wanted to take in the annual Derby Classic horse show.

Except it didn’t happen. And that wasn’t the only surprise that week.

Mercer County Fairgrounds in May 2006/Photo by Rhonda Lane
Mercer County Fairgrounds in May 2006/Photo by Rhonda Lane

I arrived at my Harrodsburg hotel only to find out that the horse show I had flown down to attend had been cancelled.

Because, during that previous night, while I had been asleep so I could get up early to drive to the airport before dawn to make my flight, a large section of the the Mercer County Fairgrounds grandstand had burned down.

Not six months after a tornado had ripped through another portion earlier in the year.

Mercer County Fairgrounds grandstand in May 2008, after 2008 tornado AND fire/Photo by Rhonda Lane
Mercer County Fairgrounds grandstand in May 2008, after 2008 tornado AND fire/Photo by Rhonda Lane

Thanks to that one-two punch, which included a pile of recently charred embers that had been part of the grandstand, there wasn’t time to cleanup the place in time for the show.

Of course, a burned Kentucky county fairgrounds grandstand section did not make for big national news. Plus, my trip was locked in at that point anyway.

So, yes, the horse show that I had flown more than a thousand miles to attend had been cancelled.

I made the best of things. I visited Harrodsburg horse farms.  I enjoyed a day of walking around at Shaker Village. Because of the horse show cancellation, my hotel had some reservation cancellations, so I received a room upgrade. I even bought a ticket to a local historical society’s annual Derby breakfast.

Since we’d had plans to meet at the horse show, I called my buddy who lives in Bardstown. She also had not heard about the fairgrounds grandstand and still had planned to meet me at the show.

Apparently, the destruction at the fairgrounds hadn’t even been big news within Kentucky, either.

After I told her that the horse show had been cancelled, she asked me what I was doing for Derby. I told her about the Derby breakfast, which even I thought sounded a bit wan. As an alternative, she invited me to come visit her Tennessee Walking Horse breeding farm.

So, early Derby morning, I gave my ticket to a server at my hotel’s restaurant and headed for Bardstown.

My friend’s cozy farm is set at the base of what passes for a mountain around there.  We also visited other area walking horse barns. We watched some of the pre-Derby race program on the little portable TV in a tack shop. We even drove past Federal Hill, the mansion that inspired Stephen Foster to write the anthem of the day “My Old Kentucky Home.”

The race itself

We returned to her farm to listen to the race on my rental car’s radio. My friend doesn’t have a TV, and her car doesn’t have a radio, either.

So, we sat outside her barns while listening to the call of the race. Her cat thought we were nuts, just sitting in the car with the windows open and the radio blaring. He stared at us with his ears swiveled to each side.

The experience of listening to the Kentucky Derby had a 1940s feel. Yes, I misted up when The Song played. And then, they were off.

After the race, we were buzzed. The filly had come in second! Whee!

And then — after the race (the sad part)

My friend headed for her car so that we could enjoy a dinner out before I returned to Harrodsburg. I followed her down the curvy state highway to the Bardstown Chili’s.

Again, she didn’t have a radio in her car. I did. And mine was still tuned to the same channel as the race.

On the road, while trying to keep up, I heard over my car radio about Eight Belles.

If you haven’t listened to a live event on the radio, you don’t know how the announcers often cannot keep a sense of urgency out of their voice. Let alone shock.

When I heard the news, I pounded the steering wheel and raged inside my car. No, no, NO!

All the while, my friend was up ahead driving in blissful ignorance about this most recent, catastrophic development.

I didn’t have hands-free capability on my cell phone. Plus, that wasn’t news that I wanted to blurt out to another horsewoman while she was driving a car on curvy, twisty roads.

By the time we both swerved into the Chili’s parking lot, Eight Belles was gone.

There is special provenance in the fall of a sparrow.

My friend emerged from her car with a big excited grin on her face. We’d just enjoyed a day of great fun. We’d just listened to the Kentucky Derby in good company. We were about to have a nice dinner together.

And I had to give her bad news and squash her good mood.

My friend is a lady who breeds horses for the love of the animals, for the continued improvement of the breed and as a small home business. She has a good day job, too, so she doesn’t depend upon her horses for her living. But she’s  an artist with a pedigree chart, an eye for conformation and knowledge of the history of the breed. Like many breeders, she has lost foals.  And experienced other ups and downs of life .

So we quietly mourned the fall of the talented filly in a full parking lot outside a chain restaurant by the highway.

And then we went into eat.

Talking about the 2008 Kentucky Derby without mentioning Eight Belles is impossible.

Not to take anything away from Big Brown’s accomplishment, but she is forever linked to that piece of history.

The ghosts of Eight Belles and, for that matter, Barbaro will haunt the 2009 Derby. If for no other reason than the memory is so fresh. And that racing has made many safety changes since then, especially at Churchill Downs.

Those who regularly follow the racing press are up-to-date on the changes, but the general public/very casual race fan will probably get their first news about the upgrades to track safety.

And, still,  we always have to remember …

Loving horses is NOT for the faint of heart

They’re big. They’re fast. And the old joke is all too true — they probably can hurt themselves in a rubber room.

And accidents do happen.

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  • Scott Wills
    November 23, 2013

    Hi Rhonda!
    Now, 5 1/2 years later I read your post about the 2008 Derby.

    My wife and I were there doing the WAVE-TV, Louisville local show on Derby Day. As you well know, Derby Day is a 4:30AM until after Midnight day on site, at least for the local show.

    Obviously, NBC was on the air at the time the Derby was running but one of our cameras just happened to be focused where Eight Belles had fallen, so we were able to see things that were not broadcast. It was heart breaking. My wife and I were sitting in the truck crying about what had happened. I nearly missed uplinking the post race Jockey interview after the race because we were so upset.

    That was the last year we were invited to do the show, what with everybody wanting HD video, but it was a good 8 year run. Nothing like standing at the Downs on Derby morning watching the sun come up with the Twin Spires in the background or standing by the rail when they are working out the horses in the pre-dawn mist. It makes me proud to be a native Kentucky boy.

    Hope all is well in your and Rodney’s world!


  • Rhonda Lane
    May 2, 2014

    Ohmygosh! I realize, now on Oaks Day 2014, that I hadn’t publicly replied to this post. My apologies!

    So, thank you, Scottrick, for sharing your memories which had to have been painful to relive. (To anyone else reading these comments, Scott, my husband and I go Way Back.) Rod saw some of what you saw and told me he was glad I wasn’t anywhere near a TV. A lot of hearts broke that day.

    On a happier note, I agree – there’s nothing like Churchill at dawn on Derby Day. Watching the sun rise behind the Spires is like seeing gentle snowfall on Christmas Eve. Magic time. 🙂

    Have a good Derby, pal! Thanks for stopping by the blog and saying “hi.”