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They came dashing out through the portal leading from the box seats and through the old wooden clubhouse, holding on to each other and looking like Bonnie and Clyde leaving the racetrack money room. What they had actually just lifted, in broad daylight and from under the noses of 131,859 customers at Churchill Downs, was one sensational Kentucky Derby. Bert and Diana Firestone had waited too long for this occasion to let the winner's circle go unattended. So off they went.
"I don't believe it!" Bert cried.
Past the betting windows, through the Derby Lounge bar. Under the sign: Mint Juleps $3. Down the 11 steps. Past the Directors Room. Through a door. Down another flight of steps where Diana almost tripped over a chain draped across the stairway.
"Oh!" she gasped. Bert grabbed her elbow.
On they raced, as if the winner's circle were about to disappear. Down more steps, with Diana holding her straw hat and six of their seven children tagging behind. Through another door. On to the main floor of the clubhouse. Out a passageway to the tunnel leading to the racetrack. Big Ed McGrath, the bloodstock insurance man, met them there with a bearlike embrace.
Out another tunnel leading to the track, into the wild blue afternoon, then across the track itself, under the aluminum fence and finally reaching that small grassy place they had been racing to for the last few minutes—in fact, for the last few years. They had just won their first Kentucky Derby, after twice finishing second in the last five years, with a filly possessing bright brown eyes, long eyelashes, a golden coat and the name of Genuine Risk. After years of frustration, they had finally reached the one place in America where they wanted to be above any other.
"I knew it," said Diana. "I knew she could do it."
Genuine Risk won by a length, and the race was the easiest part. Her appearance at the starting gate, with Jockey Jacinto Vasquez wearing the distinctive green-and-white Firestone silks, was the culmination of a series of unlikely events that began when a 14-year-old boy fell for a horse. These events reached their most critical stage when trainer LeRoy Jolley agonized over whether to do what no owner and trainer had agreed to do since Silver Spoon went to the post in 1959: saddle a filly in the Derby. That the Firestones and Jolley decided to go ahead produced a Derby as moving for those involved in it as it was memorable for those who witnessed it.
Nearly two years ago, at the Fasig-Tipton summer yearling sale in Lexington, Ky., Bertram's son Matthew took a liking to a daughter of Exclusive Native, sire of Triple Crown winner Affirmed, out of Virtuous, who had been sired by Gallant Man, the record-breaking winner of the 1957 Belmont Stakes. In the years he had been accompanying his father to sales, Matthew had become a student of pedigree and conformation. After seeing the filly, he sought out his father. It was late and the sale was about to begin. "I found one I really like," Matthew said. "Can you come and look at her?" Firestone hesitated, telling him time was short and the yearling salesmen wouldn't show a horse at so late an hour. Unruffled, Matthew dashed to the barn. "They'll show her to us," he said on returning. Together they visited the filly. Firestone hadn't even marked her in his program, but he decided that he liked her, too. "Can I bid on her for you?" the boy asked. "You can go to $35,000," his father said.
That night, the last nod of Matthew's head signaled a bid of $32,000, and the filly was theirs. They aptly named her Genuine Risk, and she wasn't long coming to hand after Jolley started cranking her up last autumn. They figured they had something when, in her second start, she blew away a field of allowance fillies to win by more than seven lengths and then won the Tempted Stakes at Aqueduct by three. Firestone remembers Vasquez saying, as he dismounted, "This filly can beat the colts."