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Billy Reed: Back on the rail, seeing old friends, making new and lamenting how things have changed

LOUISVILLE – As soon as I got out of the car, I knew I was where I belonged. Every Kentucky Derby week from 1966 to 2018, I was as much a fixture on the backstretch at Churchill Downs as the truck that sold hot coffee.

It was gray and drizzly and muddy yesterday, making the going more difficult, but I was, as jockey Don Brumfield famously said after winning the ’66 Derby on Kauai King, “the happiest hillbilly hardboot.”

Accompanied by Ed Zellers, my next-door-neighbor and fellow Joe Biden fan, I took off, notebook in hand, just as always. I was looking for my friend Bill Vest, director of security at the track, to thank him for helping facilitate our visit.

So many of my friends and fellow writers are gone. Back in the day, the Derby was a must stop for the greatest of American sports writers. But now that print newspapers are disappearing by the day, few cover the Derby anymore.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon. This week Billy is covering his 53rd Kentucky Derby week, counting down to Saturday’s Run for the Roses.

That was confirmed when I ran into Gary Yunt, a longtime friend and colleague who has been gathering quotes for the track’s news releases since Citation won in 1948 – or, at least, that’s the way it seems.

Gary told me that only three out-of-town newspapers were sending a writer to cover the Derby. They were from Los Angeles, San Diego, and one of the Florida cities.

That didn’t exactly surprise me, but it was a jolt, nonetheless.

Moving toward the rail, I next ran into trainer Dallas Stewart, whom I met years ago when he was a top assistant for D. Wayne Lukas. He has never won the Derby, but at least he’s had a few horses in the field.

Both Dallas and I are good friends with Scotty Davenport, the Bellarmine University basketball coach who grew up near Churchill. Scotty also has been a backstretch fixture for years, but I didn’t see him yesterday.

My destination yesterday was the Jim Bolus Media Center. Until his untimely death in 1997, Jim was one of my closest friends. He was a good writer and better historian. I’m sure nobody loved the Derby quite like Jim did.

The place was mostly empty yesterday, as was the big coffee urn. But we sat down for a few minutes so I could tell Ed about Jim. In 1973, Jim and I won two national journalism award for an investigation of thoroughbred racing that we had done the previous year.

One was the Sigma Delta Chi Award for general reporting. The runners-up in our category were a couple of guys named Bernstein and Woodward, of whom you may have heard. Their investigation of Richard Nixon, known as “Watergate,” led to the President’s resignation.

Unfortunately for Jim and me, the awards were to be presented on Derby Day in Omaha, NE. As honored as we were, neither Jim nor I wanted to go because that year’s Derby favorite was a golden horse named Secretariat.

However, our boss, George Gill, felt the award was so prestigious that one of us had to go. Jim and I flipped a coin. And that’s why I was on a plane heading for Omaha on Derby morning. When it passed over Churchill Downs, I looked down sadly at the twin spires.

But it worked out as it should have. It was more important that Jim, the unofficial Derby historian, be there instead of me. Later in the day, during breaks in our programs, both Bernstein and I raced for the pay phones, Bernstein to call Woodward about Nixon and me to call Jim about Secretariat.

We sat in the Bolus Media Center for a few minutes, mainly so I could tell Ed about Jim, who had as much integrity as anyone I’ve ever known. He was just the best. Period.

Leaving the building, we passed by the long rows of tents where radio and TV stations were assigned spaces. For many years, I worked as Drew Deener’s sidekick on ESPN680 Radio. I enjoyed it immensely.

Yesterday Drew was back at the same old stand, doing his show. It was good to see him. We bumped fists and I waved at the other station guys hanging around.

I took Ed by Bob Baffert’s barn, which has been home to five Derby winners. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see Bob, a friend since he brought his first horse to the Derby in 1996. His name was Cavonnier and he was narrowly beaten by Grindstone.

Nevertheless, Baffert got hooked on the Derby, and doggoned if he didn’t win the next two with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in ’98.

As we headed back toward Ed’s SUV, parked outside Barn 25, I decided I wanted to see if I could meet Brad Cox, who trains the unbeaten favorite Essential Quality, and wish him luck.

He was in Barn 22 and, naturally, a gaggle to film crews and photographers were waiting outside to get a glimpse of Essential Quality. I took a seat on the back of a golf cart and waited for Cox to come out of the barn.

It was here that I ran into Tim Sullivan, the talented sports columnist for The Courier-Journal. I met Tim years ago when he covered the Derby for one of the Cincinnati papers.

He does a great job under conditions that are vastly different and more restrictive from my days at the C-J. Under Gannett, the deadlines have been pushed up and up and up, to the point that you can’t get today’s news in tomorrow’s paper.

When Tim told me it didn’t look like the C-J would be able to get a story about Friday’s Kentucky Oaks in the paper until Sunday, I could only shake my head. I don’t know what we should call such publications, but they aren’t NEWSpapers.

After a half-hour or so, Ed and I left without meeting Cox. I was disappointed because if he wins the roses on Saturday, he will be the first Louisville-born trainer to do it.

When I first heard that, I couldn’t believe it. Surely, in 146 years, some native son had trained a Derby winner. But it’s true, which is a good reason to pull for Brad to do it on Saturday.

Ed had told me coming over that he had never eaten breakfast at Wagner’s Pharmacy, the little joint across from the track that has been catering to horsemen since 1922.

So we decided that Ed needed to have breakfast there at least once in his life. Inside, the walls of Wagner’s are covered with winning-circle photos of Derby winners past. It’s literally an art museum where you also can get the best eggs and bacon in Louisville. (I didn’t get the bacon because I’ve been put on a no-salt diet.)

We both were satisfied and happy when we returned home. My only regret, other than not meeting Brad Cox, was not seeing my buddy Bill Vest, the security chief.

I hope that happens on Saturday afternoon. I plan to watch my 53rd Derby on the backstretch. The weather is supposed to be sunny, dry, and 75 degrees.

I am excited about doing this one more time.

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