A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Billy Reed: His 53rd Derby Week begins with memories of what use to be and what still is

LOUISVILLE – On the Monday morning before the Kentucky Derby, the backstretch at Churchill Downs is a bustling and confusing place to be. The last of the Derby horses are being vanned in. Others are getting their last serious workouts. Still others are going to the track for a leisurely breeze.

It also used to be the day when the out-of-town media began to arrive.

Unfortunately, this is no longer an issue because so many newspapers have folded, victims of the internet age, or dropped their racing coverage. So the backstretch now is almost exclusively the province of the horses, owners, trainers, grooms, hotwalkers, and racing officials.

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.

Truth be told, very little hard news is produced the week before the Derby. The horses are as fit as they can be, so it’s mostly a week of maintenance to make sure they maintain their condition. Some years, of course, a horse will be scratched the week before the Derby due to illness or injury. That’s a trainer’s worst nightmare.

Everybody has a cup of coffee and opinion about who’s going to win the Derby and why. The race seems to have an obvious favorite in the unbeaten Essential Quality, who ran his record to 5-for-5 with a gritty, come-from-behind neck victory over Highly Motivated in the April 3 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

Yet some of the so-called “experts” don’t seem very excited about him. My mission this week will be to find out why, in addition to seeing if there’s one of the horses who grabs me with his looks or competitive spirit. I’m already feeling good about Known Agenda, winner of the Florida Derby. He seems to be sitting on a big race.

Before computers changed everything, I loved being sort of an unofficial “host” to the out-of-town writers, many of whom I had met while covering other major sporting events. Anything they needed, from restaurant recommendations to information about local tourist attractions, I tried to provide. I felt honored to be recognized by icons such as Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, Blackie Sherrod of the Dallas Times-Herald, and Edwin Pope of the Miami Herald.

And then, of course, there was Red Smith, the best sportswriter of his, or maybe any, generation.

My first encounter with my hero came after one Derby in the 1960s. I had finished my Derby story for The Courier-Journal and was helping around the office when Earl Cox, by boss, told me to go up to the Brown Hotel and pick up a copy of Red’s Derby column for the next day. I knocked on his door and walked into his room. He had a typewritten copy of the column ready for me. I couldn’t help but notice a fifth of Scotch beside his portable typewriter.

When I read the column in our Derby edition, I was delighted to see it lived up to Red’s high standards. If he had been drinking as he wrote, it surely didn’t affect his unique way with words and it had no impact on my high esteem for him. It gets lonely on the road, trust me on that, and we nomads of the keyboard learn to get along as best we can.

On the backstretch the week before the Derby, Red usually hooked up with his buddy Jack Murphy of the San Diego Times-Union. One day, I ran into them and stopped for a chat. Red cleared his throat and said, “Nice column this morning, Billy.” I managed to say thanks, but I was really over the moon. Red Smith liked my column? I was overwhelmed.

On Tuesday morning, the major news event will be the taking of Derby entries and the draw for post position. Over the years, the chances of many good horses have been compromised by their post. Most trainers prefer to draw somewhere in the middle of the pack because breaking from the rail or the far outside each present unique choices that must be made in a split second.

And always remember that because the Derby is the most coveted race in the world, every jockey will take chances he or she would not take in any other race.

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