By the time the clocks at Churchill Downs pointed to 4:35 last Saturday afternoon, every man, woman and child in the U.S. and at least 10 horses knew who had won the Kentucky Derby. This statement is a downright lie—it just seemed as though every man, woman and child in the U.S. knew who had won—but for purposes of this essay, since it has a fine, authoritative ring, it will be presumed to be the hope-to-die, boil-me-in-hot-lard-and-throw-me-to-the-catfish truth. A good many careless readers will probably swear it is the truth, 10 years from now, and this dramatizes the fact that the Derby is one of those wonderful phenomena which are recorded differently in millions of different minds and stay that way until the reaper or the keeper steps in and lugs the recipient away.
Since only 100,000 people crowded into the track at Louisville most of the Derby audience drew their impressions by electronics or word of mouth. The televiewers got a good look at the race itself but fell prey to one startling illusion: it rained lightly for but two or three minutes before the start, but the cameras created the impression that the whole place—crowds, horses, judges and band—was drenched by a torrential downpour and that the track just had to be muddy no matter what the newspapers said. And both televiewers and radio listeners were subject to mental aberration which varied from time zone to time zone.
When it was 4:35 in Louisville it was 5:35 in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Bangor, Atlanta and Wilmington, Del.; alcohol, it is needless to remark, had by that time of a Saturday afternoon worked its marvels on the ganglia, gray matter and perhaps even the eyeballs of some citizenry of the Eastern Seaboard. But it was only 2:35 in Los Angeles—where tens of thousands have become addicted to gardening, and through this pastime to the practice of spading a local potion concocted of powdered sheep's manure into the soil. There is no benefit to be had by further reflection upon the fact that environment is apt to influence the memory.
But what of those lucky, if rumpled, thousands who were actually within the storied confines of Churchill Downs?
If they were penned in the infield a lot of them couldn't see the race at all—although somebody told them what somebody else thought had happened rather quickly. It must also be reported that Commander Edward Whitehead—the ginger-bearded Briton who has raised himself to near-eminence in the U.S. by appearing in advertisements for tonic water—picked the right horse. The Commander stood in line before the $5 window when the race was over and was seen and heard by scores. In five years, ask any of them if they remember who won the Derby in '55. "Remember? Of course, I remember. It was Schweppes!"
SUNNY JIM'S DARK DAY
Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, Nashua's stooped and ancient trainer, looked surprised just once on Derby Day. The time: 5:15, a full 15 minutes before the field was off at Churchill Downs. The place: the doorway of Belmont Park's Jockey Club offices to which the 80-year-old Mr. Fitz—who did not quite feel up to the jostling crowds in Louisville—repaired to watch the race in quiet on television. Quiet! The room was a tangle of floodlights; cameras and wires, and squads of television photographers, engineers, announcers, news cameramen and reporters were packed in tight as anchovies. But after just one amazed stare, Sunny Jim grinned. "Hi boys," he said. "This is some setup you have here. Where do you want me to sit?"
The question was academic for there was only one spot left, a soft chair right in front of the television set. During the 15 minutes preceding post time Mr. Fitz moved back and forth according to photographers' wishes ("No, no, don't mind at all; just whatever you boys want") and briefly but politely answered all questions (Yes, he had talked to son John down at Louisville earlier in the afternoon and everything was all right.... No, the prospect of a heavy track wasn't bothering them. The horse was a good mudder). During the actual running of the race itself, Mr. Fitz was the calmest person in the room.
Afterward, refusing to make any excuses, he said the better horse, at least on that day, had won, and that it had been a very good race. When asked if he had been excited he said, "No, not excited. A little anxious, though." And how did he feel? "Well, I lost a race I wanted to win very much." The only sign of rebellion came when photographers asked him to pull out his handkerchief. "Now, boys, don't expect me to cry for you," he smiled. "You're not going to make me look like a bad loser." Instead he mopped his forehead, which didn't need mopping, while the flashbulbs popped. Then, good loser Mr. Fitz, still sunny even in defeat, put away his handkerchief, picked up his seat-type walking stick and shuffled out to a waiting car.