Derby Memories From the Tunnel

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Tom Durkin | Horsephotos

By Tom Durkin

My first experience of watching the Kentucky Derby as an owner (a very small stake) turned out to be…well, dangerous. Now, when I called the race for a number of years I could have sold my TV/VIP credential and bought a mid-sized car. I chose not to and stay employed.

My calling position was seven or eight stories above the track, directly on the finish line with totally unencumbered views of the race from within an enclosed glass booth, replete with a security guard to boot. Pretty safe.

But for Derby 2017, I was a fan and not cocooned in my commodious compartment. I was a fan of Always Dreaming (Bodemeister) and a part of the ownership stake that West Point Thoroughbreds had in the colt. So, for my first Derby as a civilian in over 25 years, I had a seat near my compatriots in an area facing the paddock. That was fine with me–I had seen the track view so many times over the decades and it was refreshing to check out the paddock scene. And unlike my working days, my ticket included an open bar. Nothing wrong with that.

So, the afternoon turns to early evening and “My Old Kentucky Home” time approaches. I had made my way to the paddock to get near the big horse. Maybe snap a selfie. I must admit I had never experienced any thrill like this before. Admittedly…I felt pretty damn cool. Luckily, no one took my pulse rate. I would have been hospitalized immediately. Now, given my status as a minor shareholder, I stayed back a few feet behind the main principles: Vinnie Viola, Anthony Bonomo, Anthony Manganaro and Terry Finley of West Point. But I still managed that selfie. Hey, I was a tourist that day.

The horses made their way onto the track. My Old Kentucky Home” wafts above and, sorry, but the song never made me weep. It was always a bad idea to be crying five minutes before you have to call the Derby. And I am not so lachrymose to begin with. Anyway…I take my dry-eyed self to the tunnel that leads from the paddock to the track. I’ll watch the race from there on the big screen infield TV across the track. And, should we win, I could have quick access to the winner’s circle across the track.

Post time. 160,000 scream in unison. My heart rate is now at an incalculable rate. I am at my viewing point, standing in the tunnel up against the wall. I catch a glimpse of the tops of the horses as the huge field streaks past us. I redirect my attention to the big TV screen and then all hell breaks loose. People in the tunnel scream, “Get out of the way! Move it! Move!!!” In a flash, the red-coated outrider aloft his horse has a hold of Thunder Snow (Helmet {Aus}) and his blue-silked jockey Christophe Soumillon. People scattering, shrieking, getting the hell out of the way. I had nowhere to go. I was literally up against the wall.

And coming toward me is this huge, bug-eyed animal in a panic. Turns out just as the Derby gate had opened, the Dubai-based Thunder Snow, totally unaccustomed to American racing, the muddy track conditions and 160,000 roaring maniacs just went bonkers. He was buck jumping down the track like a rodeo bull. Dangerous situation. The outrider, who did a great job by the way, had to get this very distraught and upset Thoroughbred out of harm’s way. And that way was taking him off the track and through the tunnel into the paddock all while the Derby was in full progress. And here he is scaring me to death. I swear he looked me right in the eye. Now, I must admit I am a bit afraid of horses. I never have gotten close to them because they make me sneeze and I have never felt comfortable in their company. Don’t accuse me of not loving horses. I love them as much as anyone. But I love them from a distance.

That distance was now about six inches. The agitated 1,000 pounds of muscle and sinew wheeled his rear end into perfect striking position toward my person. The resulting kick would have made for a most eventful or perhaps final Derby memory for me. I was now pretty much pinned to wall and managed to push his back end away from me and just as I did that…the outrider straightened him out and they raced toward the paddock.

Whew! I shake my head trying to compose myself and get my heartrate somewhere below 300 beats a minute. And then I realize…OMG! Always Dreaming. The Derby! I had missed most of the race being part of this commotion. By now the horses are three furlongs from home. I ask the girl next to me, `Where is Always Dreaming?’ He’s in front. OMG.

PS: Where are they now?

Always Dreaming won the Derby but did not fare well the rest of the year. Turns out he had ulcers. He is fine now and is running on Oaks Day at Churchill Downs in the $400,000 GII Alysheba S.

Thunder Snow is back home where he won the $10,000,000 G1 Dubai World Cup and is considered by many to be the best dirt horse in training in the world.

Tom Durkin is a former racecaller and sportscaster, and owns a small piece of My Boy Jack. He will be rooting for him in this year’s Derby, and no doubt will be watching the race from his lucky spot in the tunnel. Or not.

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