Frances A. Genter thought she might stay home in Minneapolis and watch the Kentucky Derby on TV. At 92, she's as fragile as a rose, and the sheer crush of it all—the crowd, the jostling, the media—might be too much. Besides, her eyesight isn't what it used to be. But Carl Nafzger, her trainer, wouldn't hear of her staying home. After her colt, Unbridled, won the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on March 17, he told Mrs. Genter, "If we have to get you a box with a TV set in it, we will, but you're going to the Kentucky Derby."
It was only right that she go. After all, for more than half a century, Mrs. Genter has owned horses—good horses—without ever having one race in the Derby. She and her late husband, Harold, became interested in the game in the late 1930s, when they started spending their winters in Florida. In 1940 they bought their first colt, Swiv, for $3,600, at the Saratoga yearling sales.
The horses always ran in Mrs. Genter's name, and among those who carried her yellow-and-blue silks to victory were stakes winners Rough'n Tumble, In Reality, Superbity and Dr. Carter. But in good times and bad, the Genters kept putting up their money and taking their chances. For them, racing was more a sport than a business, an affair of the heart instead of a way to make a buck.
Harold died in 1981, but his wife kept the stable going, relying on the guidance of Bentley Smith, her son-in-law, and of her trainers. For years the Genter horses were trained by Melvin (Sunshine) Calvert. When In Reality didn't run in the 1967 Derby despite excellent credentials, Calvert said, "The Genters are not Derby-minded and have left the ultimate decision up to me."
What he meant was that the Genters always put their horses first. Owners of their caliber enjoy their horses as much on the first Saturday in December as they do the first Saturday in May. As Nafzger put it the day after the Derby, "Owners like that are a rare breed, but they're the heart of the game."
So when Unbridled emerged as a legitimate Derby contender, Nafzger was determined that Mrs. Genter should be there to see the colt run—win or lose. She flew to Louisville on Friday, and on Derby Day showed up at Churchill Downs six hours before the race. Mrs. Genter wore a black hat and a stylish white jacket with black polka dots, but what you noticed most were her eyes and her smile. So bright, so happy, so excited. The track provided her with a wheelchair and an escort, Melanie Onnen. Asked about Mrs. Genter after the Derby, Onnen said, "She's been absolutely delightful—she hasn't let loose of my hand all day."
In a concession to Mrs. Genter's failing eyesight, Nafzger had jockey Craig Perret wear a yellow cap, which is easier to spot than the usual blue one. Even so, the trainer had to call the race for her, a scene watched by millions on TV. After the Derby, it took a while to get Mrs. Genter to the winner's circle, but when she finally arrived, wasn't she a sight up there on the victory stand, blowing kisses and waving? After all these years, Frances A. Genter was the queen of racing, and her wheelchair a throne.
Watching a replay of the Derby in the jockeys' room, Pat Day, who had finished second aboard Summer Squall, applauded when he saw Mrs. Genter's reaction to winning. "I couldn't understand why I lost," he said, "until I saw Mrs. Genter win."