Going deep on the Derby (and other things)
Rich Strike's victory so enthralling, I had to find another one like it, when an Oklahoman rode home the winner and the times were tumultuous like today
This one’s about everything.
Or, social change, writing, newspapers and the Kentucky Derby, at least.
Why we should probably read more history, too.
Did you know one of the longest shots ever to win that race was piloted by an Oklahoman, Bobby Ussery, born in Vian, 32 at the time and still kicking in Hollywood, Florida, at 86?
Just go on this ride with me. I’m reasonably sure you won’t regret it.
If you watched the Kentucky Derby Saturday, you know it was about the coolest thing you’ve ever seen and if you didn’t watch it, take a break and watch it right here, right now.
Rich Strike, an 80-to-1 long shot not only won it, but won it as though shot from a cannon, even as he weaved through horses down the stretch. It was fantastical, impossible, riveting and breathtaking.
Rich Strike — owned by Oklahoman Rick Dawson, of Edmond — was not supposed to be in the field and wasn’t in the field until minutes before the deadline struck Friday to finalize the field, only getting in as first alternate when Ethereal Road, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, was scratched.
Of course, Rich Strike was forgotten, received almost no betting support, but there he was at the end, making the rest of the field stand still.
If you don’t like horse racing, what’s your problem?
Yes, it’s hard to follow. Breeders’ Cup weekend each November’s electric and every bit the sport’s world championship event, yet there’s no great way to keep up with it, no standings in agate type on the sports page, no way to follow it like the other sports.
Yet, watching horses run is magical and if you haven’t figured that out yet, get yourself to Remington Park, stand by finish line where they run right past you, and get with the program.
Rich Strike won, fabulously, yet because we no longer live in an age in which baseball, boxing and horse racing are king, or even one in which a nation of larger than life sports columnists descend upon Churchill Downs each May, I wanted to go back and read about a long shot winning the Kentucky Derby when they did.
Sportswriting wasn’t really sportswriting yet in 1913 when Donerail, a 91-to-1 long shot, came home, so that was off the table, and so many other long shot Derby winners have been too recent to find what I went looking for: Country House, 65-to-1, in 2019; Mine That Bird, 50-to-1, in 2009; Giacomo, 50-to-1, in 2005; Charismatic, 31-to-1, in 1999.
(An aside, you need to watch Mine That Bird come from nowhere in ’09: here)
Diligent, I found one that worked.
The ninth longest shot ever to claim victory at the Kentucky Derby was Proud Clarion, in 1967, ridden by, as mentioned, Bobby Ussery.
(Read all about the greatest born-in-Oklahoma jockey in the South Florida Sun Sentinel just last year, here)
Ussery won 3,611 races total, he’s in the sport’s Hall of Fame, he even repeated in 1968 aboard Dancer’s Image before a drug test prompted a disqualification.
He won a Preakness, too.
You’d think maybe he could get into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame while he’s still around to see it happen?
Like, how is Scott Verplank in that Hall and Ussery not. Verplank won the Western Open. Ussery won the Kentucky Derby and The Preakness. Are you kidding me?
Again, I digress.
I wanted to see what Red Smith wrote about that Derby. No longer at the New York Herald Tribune by that time, and yet to be hired by the New York Times, perhaps the greatest sportswriter who ever lived remained syndicated across the country, yet without a home base.
So, when I punched it up at newspapers.com, because I made “New York” part of the search, I found Smith’s Derby column in the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle. I later changed my search and found it in the Boston Globe, Dayton Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer and St. Louis Post Dispatch, as well.
Still, finding his column in the Rochester paper proved rich.
A testament to how big horse racing used to be in this country and how newspapers used to print money and send staffers anywhere, one sports writer had two bylines from the Derby in the Democrat and Chronicle that day and it wasn’t Smith, but staffer George Beahon, who penned a story and column from Churchill Downs.
And not only did the Rochester paper send Beahon to Kentucky, but there was another story about another horse race on another horse track on the front page of its sports section on the same day, May, 7, 1967.
Tumiga won the $57,100 purse Carter Handicap at Aqueduct, topping Our Michael in wire-to-wire triumph, the thoroughbred’s sixth straight victory, and there it was in the bottom left corner of the page.
Beahon’s main story from the Derby was pretty standard, but his column was interesting.
In it, he explained that, though Fourth Avenue, Louisville’s main drag for Derby-eve revealers, was closed to traffic for pedestrian use, the regular celebrity crowd was mostly absent, due to poor weather and fear “of racial demonstrations.”
Yet, he wrote, college students filled the void and “Suddenly it was Daytona Beach, or Fort Lauderdale, during Easter vacation,” which must be what they used to call spring break.
He was working his way, subtly, to his point, given that Proud Clarion, at 30-to-1, such an unlikely victor, finished up front.
“When the combination of Proud Clarion, a modest 30 to 1 chance, trainer Loyd Gentry and jockey Bob Ussery got into the winner’s circle together, it was a victory for the underrated, abused and underprivileged, in that order.”
Smith focused on Ussery, and though he wasn’t trying to throw haymakers following an unlikely winner in America’s most celebrated horse race, you can still sense why he was Red Smith and everybody else wasn’t.
“Robert Nelson Ussery, who rides horses in New York like a six-day bike racer, rode one in Kentucky yesterday like a half back on a broken field,” he wrote. “Weaving through a misty rain with a 30-to-1 shot named Proud Clarion, he won the 93rd Kentucky Derby for John Galbreath, who owns Darby Dan Farm, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and large swatches of Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.”
Perhaps now’s a good time to watch Rich Strike again, because Smith’s description of the 1967 race sounds a bit like the ride jockey Sonny Leon gave Saturday’s Derby winner.
“Going along ninth in the field of 14, he was carried out a trifle turning into the back stretch, but he steered his colt right back to the rail and stayed there to the far turn, almost standing in the irons as he steadied the mount,” Smith wrote.
“On the big bend he angled out to get around Lightning Orphan, steering inside Field Master. Now he was almost on the heels of Reason To Hail, so he checked just long enough to swing outside, came wide around the turn and was out in the middle of the track when he straightened with a clear road to the wire.”
You can watch some of the ’67 Derby here. You can see national guardsmen patrolling the track, too, there to quell demonstrations that never occurred.
There was another item of interest on the front page of the Rochester sports that day, also.
“Bruising Larry Csonka scored twice as the Syracuse varsity walloped the Alumni, 36-9, here Saturday before 5,000 fans in the schoo’s spring football game,” read the opening.
One, Larry Csonka has been in the NFL Hall of Fame since 1987, was a huge part of coach Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins that won Super Bowls VII and VIII, and was even the most ballyhooed NFLer to jump to the fledgling World Football League, spending one season with the Memphis Southmen.
Two, varsity-alumni games used to be a thing, even at Oklahoma. You might catch an NFL player on the alumni team, or 40-something Billy Vessels suiting up in the 70s for the alumni Sooners.
It was 55 years ago, another long shot won the Derby, a sporting event that thought it might be threatened by racial unrest. The threat of that and a rainy day made it a Derby for commoners and long shots, an Oklahoman named Bobby Ussery on the mount, and in some ways, Vietnam aside, it wasn’t all that different than the times we find ourselves in today, cultures clashing and a long shot taking home the Derby.
We should probably read more history.