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A sunny Run for the Roses is always a great day to be a Kentuckian, but that glare on our old Shelby County homes Saturday was even a bit brighter than usual.
That’s because for the first time in decades we had someone local to root home, a personal chunk of us, a force to steal inside us and transform all those generic impulses of pride and emotion into true partisanship.
That Archarcharch and his jockey, Jon Court, left separately – the colt on wheels and the man on foot – was not a great ending to an otherwise great day. But it did mesh into the emotional knot that Derby 137 seemed to create in our gut.
Has there ever been a starting gate filled with so many emotional story lines? A trainer recovering from a heart transplant. A woman with a reasonable chance to break the gender barrier among winning jockeys. Passionate Nick Zito with the favorite after more than two decades of defeats. Twinspired and his dozens of no-other-shot owners. The self-made millionaire from Brooklyn. Ad infinitum.
And then of course there was Court and his father-in-law/trainer, Jinks Fires – each appearing in his first Derby after decades of trying and being deflated though not defeated – who drew the spotlight to Shelby County.
Way before the sun trilled brightly from the throats of hundreds of thousands, the chills were chillier, the tears a bit quicker to arrive. This was different.
Court has lived quietly in our midst for years, we now know. He has won his share of races – 3,500 seems like a lot at least – but there was nothing quiet about what he brought to Shelby County during this Derby season.
First, there were headlines across America about a 50-year-old getting his first Derby mount after twice before being sadly left at the race’s altar.
These are the stories that pump the Derby beyond a horse race and into an appointment event.
This is what drew cameras from NBC-TV to Painted Stone Elementary, where Court’s younger daughter attends school. A several-minute piece about Court showed his recent visit to speak to her class and was televised before the race, with a close-up of the school and several seconds of footage from the assembly.
Emotions. Pride. Our guy.
You see Shelby County is not used to such a role in the Derby. We strain for connection and for angles.
You find yourself rooting for Shackleford because you know his trainer, Dale Romans, routinely buys his feed from Tapp’s Feed, which is sort of like rooting for the guy on the Wheaties box because you live near the General Mills factory.
Our historic ties to Thoroughbred royalty have been tangential and rather unfulfilling. Timely Tip – laid to rest at Clear Creek Park – made a bold bid in 1954 but ran out of gas in the stretch.
Saigon Warrior, bless his heart, was such an also-ran in 1971 – some say he still is running – that school kids teased the children of the family whose farm produced him.
And then Sir Cherokee, trained by Shelby Countian Mike Tomlinson, was close in 2003 but couldn’t get to the gate.
But here were Court and his horse and his story changing all of that.
How big was it? This was the first time in recent memory – maybe ever – that The Sentinel-Newscredentialed a reporter to be at Churchill Downs on Derby Day.
No, this was no ordinary Derby, when our hopes and emotions usually rode with a random horse chosen because of name, number, pedigree or some other equally mystic method, such as out of a hat in an office pool.
(For the record, I drew Comma To The Top, which may appear a great name to be selected by an editor, but this Comma never will be spliced into a sentence containing the identifying phrase “Kentucky Derby winner.”)
But this time, when 19 horses exploded from the starting gate, we focused our eyes on seeing the purple-and-gold come out of that dreadful No. 1 hole, trying to see how he would get away before the rail halted his pace.
We strained our ears to hear his progress against the maddeningly awful audio feed from NBC-TV, catching the sound of “Arch” only briefly as the horses formed a crowded pack heading into the far turn.
We watched for the color and hoped and dreamed of headlines proclaiming Derby roses coming home to Shelby County.
But, in the end, as far as we could determine without NBC helping us out, Arch was not in the narrow focus of the finish. Shackleford was there, along with the emotionally backed Mucho Macho Man.
We were left with the winning trainer and jockey doing so on a long-shot, backup horse because their first choices couldn’t go to post.
Animal Kingdom. That’s the name of a theme park. I’m stunned Disney, of all people, hasn’t sued – or made a commercial.
Then we saw the worst of it all, that Archarcharch was being pulled up after the finish, the horror of the horse ambulance being steered onto the track.
The narrow focus of information flow prohibiting us from knowing exactly what was going on, how badly the horse was injured, exactly what happened.
This was our horse. We wanted a happy ending, not a tragic one. There are too many of those in the racing world. We all saw Barbaro and Eight Belles. We knew what could happen here.
Later we learned the injury wasn’t life-threatening, that Arch won’t race again but instead will try his prowess at off-track activities.
Jon Court will miss the horse.
New mounts will be coming. We’re hoping they’re good ones.
We dream of another Derby in which he has a ride, because it’s fun having one of our own in the big race.
To read previous columns by Steve Doyle, go to www.SentinelNews.com/columns.