Thoughts on the Kentucky Derby

This is personal, so hopefully it will "work" for a reader who does not know me well. You do know yourself well, and for sure you will have had a similar experience or positive recollection you can plug into your walk down memory lane. Here goes with mine.

The Kentucky Derby is the premium horse race in the United States, a claim based on 145 years of  history. At one and a quarter miles, the Derby is run on the first Saturday of May every year. It is one of the Triple Crown of horse racing and is held at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Only three horses have finished in less than two minutes for the one-and-a-quarter mile track, with the famed Secretariat holding the record at 1:59:40 in 1973. Fashions are paramount with the see-and-be-seen crowd, modeled after European races with extravagant ladies' hats taking the prize. Adult beverages are prominant with the signature Mint Juleps the favorite. All this information may be found on Wikipedia or other sites. For me, the Derby means much more.

My mother grew up in Danville, in the central part of the state: Bluegrass country. It was made clearly understood to me that Kentucky was a special place. My sister and I spent a month every summer visiting Mom's brother and his family.  We lived in Paintsville, part of the state known distinctively (and perhaps dismissively by some) as "Eastern Kentucky," where Daddy worked as the sales manager for a GM dealership in that small county seat. He had been with GM for some time, in accounting and finance at the GM regional HQ in Huntington, WV when we moved to Paintsville with the understanding he would learn the retail business and buy a General Motors dealership (Chevrolets and Oldsmobiles, as I recall) from an aging dealer. That did not work out for reasons of Dad's alcoholism and other reasons way above my young ken. Daddy felt he was edged out by the dealer's oldest son who suddenly became rehabilitated from a life of fraternity excesses at U.K. in Lexington. I was only six when we moved there and ten or so when we left, so clearly I was not in the loop.

On to Derby Day, as it was known, which was a big deal to my mother - and to me. It meant my sister, Sally and I were allowed to go barefoot for the first time of the year. In practice, this meant I was barefoot until school started once again in the fall. Sunday mornings were excepted, naturally, as Sunday School and the (boring to a young kid) Methodist church services were mandatory. We were in a county bordering with West Virginia, and the only television was over the air from two stations in Huntington. Imagine that! We were so backward that a prime contact with modernity was from West Virginia!

I do remember being imprinted strongly with "Kentucky-ism." My maternal first cousins in Danville were four or five hours away on winding roads, but very close in terms of family ties. It was a Tom Sawyer boyhood for me: rafting on Paint Creek, chasing imaginary Indians through the thick weeds - kicking up dust after the numerous creek floods, and hikes around the local hills. The hills were said to be inhabited by "Turkey Knobbers" who were wild and lived as savages on Turkey Knob, where ever that was. We were told they captured town kids and tied us up as they did "bad things," so we were never to venture up into the hollers. We did, of course, but fortunately never saw any Turkey Knobbers and thus were spared the horrors thereof.

Oh, back to the Derby. On Derby Day Mom always made something special for us to eat while we watched the race on television. She had an RN degree from Norton Infirmary in Louisville and worked for the state, specifically for the Johnson County Health Department based in Paintsville. She was based out of the office in town, but had to drive out "in the county" as she said, to find outlying families who needed help or some sort of required medical checks. Occasionally I would go out with her, on a school holiday or other special occasion, and vaguely recall the trips transitioning from the pretty good state roads to smaller and less well-maintained county byways, and then to dirt roads, which eventually got worse and worse until she would park the Chevy at the very end and we would walk to find the house where the person lived. These houses usually were not painted; they ranged from fairly decent places, all the way to shacks and worse. Most had no electricity, and of course outhouses of various shapes and conditions were the standard. Water came from a well, or sometimes from a creek or a spring nearby.

Oh, back again to the Derby... Of course singing "My Old Kentucky Home" has been a standard since 1930, and we sang the famous first verse in our house along with the crowd at Churchill Downs. A check of Wikipedia or other sources is a "fact-fest" of information about the song. It's surprising that it has escaped the sort of controversy that "The Eyes of Texas" has generated here at the University of Texas,  but Kentucky's official state song is widely played and sung. It's an old minstrel song with resonance on many levels including the loss of home. The word "darkies" was replaced by "people" in 1986 when the state House and Senate adopted the changes officially. On a very personal level, Mother's mother, Mama Jackson, used the term "darkies" as the  proper and courteous term for the black race when we were small. We never used the term since by then it was considered condescending. Again, my apologies for becoming perhaps too personal.

Oh, back yet again to Derby Day... the current television show, a five hour slugfest of history, fashion, and some horse racing interspersed, was sponsored this year in part by Woodward Reserve, a bourbon distillery. The race coverage here at my home includes a finger or two of my favorite bourbon, W.L. Weller. But that's a personal choice. Hmm, too personal again.

If you have made it all the way to the end, thanks! It's been fun a remeninse a bit. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

J.K. George Jr. (at age 79)

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Enjoy life; it's the only one we will get.

J.K. (Jim) George


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3 Responses

  1. Hello Jim, we have not visited since the last ham fest, not sure which one. I was born in rural Ross county Ohio a bit north and east of Chillicothe. Dad was born in Ray, Ohio and Mother was from Greenup county Kentucky. She grew up in very poor and deprived circumstances on Flat Holler, just across the Ohio river from Portsmouth. Ohio. Having moved to the Portsmouth are as a lad of 12, I had the opportunity to visit Mother's birth place and see some of the roads and houses of which you speak. From the stories she related to my brother and me, I surmise, Derby Day was not even heard of by her family. Not even a mention of a radio. Enjoyed your piece on Derby Day. Regards, Jack Tyler KB5TXS
  2. Good story, Jim. The Derby is also a standard event at our house. My wife, Pat had a horse growing up in the lowcountry of South Carolina and is a fan. One of her best friends is a horse trainer and riding coach. Pat attended the Derby in 2001, the year Monarchos won. Not long afterwards, we read the book, Horse of a Different Color written by Jim Squires, the breeder of Monarchos. He was also a retired newspaper editor from Chicago. It's an entertaining read featuring his dominant wife prominently. I also remember that My Old Kentucky Home was the favorite song of my grandmother. Cheers, Curt
  3. Wonderful! A different world

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