Virginia Kelley's memory of the only time she attended the Kentucky Derby is a little fuzzy. She thinks it was about 20 years ago, and she can't remember who won the race. Kelley and some of her fellow nurses from Ouachita hospital in Hot Springs, Ark., took off for Louisville on a lark. They watched the race from the crowded infield at Churchill Downs and barely saw a horse.
Kelley, 69, will attend her second Derby on May 1 as a guest of Kentucky governor Brereton Jones. And she'll watch the race from a box overlooking the finish line. This may have something to do with the fact that her son Bill Clinton is the 42nd President of the United States. Kelley talked about the Derby last week as she watched the races at Oaklawn Park in her hometown of Hot Springs. She and her friend Dixie Seba were studying the Daily Racing Form and splitting show bets, just as they've done several times a week for the last 40 years. "I used to be a pretty good handicapper," said Kelley. "But I've gotten so busy lately I just don't have time to concentrate."
Long before Clinton was first elected governor of Arkansas, in 1978, his mom was a regular at Oaklawn. Kelley is such a friend of racing that in 1989, when her son was serving his fourth term as governor, she advocated Sunday racing in Arkansas, which was approved in November 1990. As Kelley sees it, prayers and ponies make for a nice daily double. Her racetrack friends include jockey Pat Day, who won last year's Kentucky Derby aboard Lil E. Tee, and his wife, Sheila. Last September, after Sheila opened a boutique in Crestwood, Ky., Kelley had her design and make the dress she wore to her son's inauguration.
After the inauguration, Kelley received a VIP tour of Laurel Race Course in Maryland, where trainer Eddie Gaudet gave her a tip on one of his horses (it won and paid $7). She also went to the Super Bowl as a guest of Ralph Wilson, the owner of the Buffalo Bills as well as a prominent thoroughbred breeder and owner. Yet, as nice as all this attention is, Kelley says she feels most at home at Oaklawn, watching the races with her husband, Richard Kelley, and their friends. Although she took Bill to the races when he was a youngster, the future president never caught the racing bug, perhaps because he lost $4 at a time when he didn't have it to lose, thereby learning a lesson that he can apply in his efforts to reduce the national debt.
Virginia Kelley says she never wins or loses a lot, although she does recall a day years ago when she picked nine winners out of nine races and went home with $700. "And I never bet more than $2 across the board," she says. Her handicapping system is based on a horse's speed rating and percentage of victories. "I also look at their conformation when they come out on the track," she says.
Her Kentucky Derby horse was Dalhart, until he finished ninth in last Saturday's Arkansas Derby. One of the horses she's now considering is Blue Grass Stakes winner Prairie Bayou, who, like Dalhart, comes from the Loblolly Stable of John Ed Anthony, the Arkansas lumber magnate who once was one of Bill Clinton's most outspoken critics.
During Clinton's first term as governor, Anthony was president of the Arkansas Forestry Association, an organization of forest product companies, timberland owners and tree farmers. Inevitably, Clinton's environmental policies came into direct conflict with the forest industry's interests, whose lobbyers helped to defeat him in his 1980 bid for reelection. When this is mentioned to Clinton's mother, she only shrugs. "I can't hold a grudge against everybody who has disagreed with Bill," she said. "He [ Anthony] is fine. He's my friend."
Asked how she might have handicapped her son's run for the presidency, she says, "I would have called him a dark horse. But I said all along if he could win the primaries, he could beat George Bush. I didn't know the track record of those in the primaries, but I did know George Bush's track record."
When told that Bush will also attend the Kentucky Derby, she says, "Well, that's all right, as long as he doesn't mess up my handicapping."