First Love and the Kentucky Derby

You never forget your first love. I do not remember how or why he captured my attention, but I was obsessed.

In the spring of 1972 I was six-years-old and following the sports pages of the Louisville Courier Journal like a seasoned race track pro looking for insight on the Derby Field.

I was a bundle of nerves on race day. I had picked a horse and I just knew he was going to win. I don’t remember how or why I picked my horse, but I had one. And I believed.

My horse with his blue and white checked silks was easy to follow when the field shot out of the gates in the 98th running of the Kentucky Derby. Riva Ridge took the lead immediately and never relinquished the lead. He ran way from field. It was a commanding win. There had not been a Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948. Was this big bay horse the next super horse? I believed.

In the two weeks between the Derby and Preakness I was obsessed. Newsprint photos of Riva Ridge and his trainer Lucien Laurin covered my bedroom wall. I wanted to grow up to be like his owner Penny Cheney. I started a scrapbook to document his achievements.

The Preakness was a sloppy track. Riva finished fourth. I was heartbroken. I cried for three weeks. I drove my parents crazy. They could not understand my despair over a horse losing a race. Riva won the Belmont Stakes by 7 lengths. I was happy, but still heartbroken. I had believed he was great, Triple Crown great.

The spring of 1973 was eerily similar to 1972. I had a horse. I believed. He was a big red animal owned by Penny Cheney and trained by Lucien Laurin. He was a stable mate of Riva’s. Images of the new horse covered my wall. I had a scrapbook.

I still remembered my parents trying to prepare me for what they thought was to be inevitable results of the 1973 races, “Secretariat is a good horse, but he may not win. Not just any horse can win the triple crown.”

I was fanatical about the race and kept a scrapbook through 1980. We had left Kentucky and there was no Courier Journal. And I was a bratty high school girl more interested in the typical heartthrobs.

Derby Day is still a high holy day of obligation for me. Some years I follow the pre race coverage more than others. Some years I have a horse, I think can win. Not matter where I am, I see the race. I tear up durning the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” and when the field is first lead onto the track. I tear up for the little kid in me that believed in the greatness of those animals.

I wish I had not thrown away those scrapbooks.

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