Reality: Vegas Style

By Bill Nack
For a fleeting instant, as the leaders powered off the final turn at Churchill Downs and Afleet Alex appeared to be threading his way through horses to the lead, a tremendous roar burst forth from the throngs surrounding me and suddenly, even magically, it was as though I'd been transported back to the River City and were seeing the spectacle first hand.

For one delicious moment, as Bellamy Road appeared to wilt and hang over the fires of that early pace and those uncooked stretch-runners came to swallow the leaders, I could almost smell the mint and bourbon on the floating trays and feel that old Kentucky sun on my back--as though, indeed, I had dissolved on the shores of Lake Mead and materialized on the banks of the Ohio, 2,000 miles away, in that un-renovated clubhouse of old. And then the moment passed, like an early morning dream, as Giacomo and Closing Argument edged away from Afleet Alex and all those wet sails to win the most shocking Kentucky Derby (gr. I) in memory. In fact, that entire crowd of 1,500 noisy, clamoring souls who were pressed, cheek by jowl, in the race and sports book of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas--most of them to cheer vigorously for the sentimental favorite, Afleet Alex, if not to boo and hiss at George Steinbrenner, whenever "The Boss" appeared on the giant sports-book screen--at once fell as stonily silent as so many statues in Madame Tussauds' local House of Wax.

For an odd host of reasons, from those fed by the springs of memory to those rooted in the very strangeness of the surroundings--not to mention the stunning climax of the race itself--this surely ranks among my most unforgettable Derbys. I had already seen my share. After witnessing 33 straight since becoming a Turf writer in 1972--from Riva Ridge's romping victory that year to Smarty Jones' smashing score in '04--I took a pass on '05 in order to accept a coveted bauble, given by the Boxing Writers' Association of America, at a formal dinner in the resort on Derby eve.

So it was I came to play at Mandalay. With that giant TV screen looming above us, I felt at times like the dying man seeing his life pass quickly before his eyes. How else to describe that eerie sensation, so surprising at the moment, as the probing TV cameras showed the horses emerging from their sheds and assembling on the mile chute? I had not seen the Kentucky Derby on TV for 34 years--since Canonero II's tour de force in '71--and the camera's eye literally took me on a journey through ancient memory. The cameras caught the horses as they gathered there, tracking them to the tunnel and the paddock. Came now Secretariat and Seattle Slew, the colts moving with a supple grace around the turn, and right behind them strode a beaming Bob Lewis, waving at the crowds who waved at Silver Charm, and next came poor Arazi, all shanks and ribs, melting into salty puddles at the Downs, and John Veitch and Laz Barrera striding in front of Alydar and Affirmed.

I was watching the big screen with five middle-aged guys who grew up together in Milwaukee, and this year marked the 15th time they'd met in Vegas to watch the Derby together. I told them I'd not missed the race in over three decades and played tour guide for them during The Walk. "For 15 years, this has been our Kentucky Derby," said Jim Kellner, one of the visiting Badgers.

Alas, their Las Vegas turned out to be the perfect venue for watching the 131st Derby. This is the land of illusion, after all, the city where a mock volcano erupts before a place aptly known as the Mirage, where the eye can sweep the landscape of the Strip and behold imposing replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the Great Pyramid, and the Statue of Liberty. This is the land of the 64-ounce margarita and weddings-on-the-fly, the city where reality stands on its head, where the Mandalay Bay features the Shark Reef--"North America's only predator-based aquarium"--and where breast augmentations have replaced the Hoover Dam as the largest construction project in Nevada history.

No wonder then that the climactic moments of the Derby, with those favorites fading and those longshots racing hysterically for the wire, emerged as the grandest illusion of the day--the perfect reflection in this house of mirrors.