By John Angelo
My wife, Lorrie, and I have danced the same dance every spring for the decade we've been together. She discovers me late one night with the VCR remote in hand watching "The Life and Times of Secretariat" or "Jewels of the Triple Crown." "How many times are you going to watch this?" is her standard question. "Until I get tired of it," I automatically reply. She then does something reasonable like go to bed while I succumb to Derby Fever and its contagious cousin, Triple Crown Fever. I was 25 when I went to my first Kentucky Derby in 1978, the year of Affirmed's determined Triple Crown sweep over Alydar. I'm 52 now. If the 27-year interim between Triple Crown winners has taught us anything, it's that it takes a great horse to win all three races. My personal timeline is but one barometer to measure how long Thoroughbred racing has gone without a Triple Crown winner. I set out for Churchill Downs in 1978 just after completing two years working in a group home for teens with Vermont Catholic Charities. My pay of $2.65 per hour and room and board had allowed me to retire almost all of my student loans. My journey to the 1978 Derby started by hitching a ride at the entrance to New York's Lincoln Tunnel. I bypassed the traditional Derby routes and opted for the "Democratic Vistas" of Walt Whitman, a famous 19th-century trainer of verbs. A "Petrone's Meats" truck was my first ride. Things got chummier in Cincinnati after taking a train to the last leg. Amtrak employees Jim, Mindy, and Bull had been given the task of trying out several new sleeping berths. I knew social injustice when I heard it and, after hearing words like "Derby," Louisville," and "Cauthen" mixed in with complaints to an Amtrak official about the fact the berths had no mattresses, I took the opportunity to introduce myself. I was good for the weekend. Place to stay courtesy of Jim's Louisville friend Clyde. We played a little Frisbee before hitting a neighborhood pub named the Tim Tam Lounge. I suspected the proprietor's connection to the 1958 Derby winner came through his pari-mutuel support of Tim Tam and other horses portrayed in the lounge's grainy black-and-white photos. I let go of any notion of getting to the Downs for the Kentucky Oaks. I had planned on putting $10 on subsequent winner White Star Line but decided to double my bet on Alydar. My first Derby was spent in the infield. I volunteered to be both designated driver and designated handicapper, a daily double of thankless Derby day tasks. The weather was perfect, and I have two distinct three-second clips of the 104th Derby etched into memory from the spot where I was mashed against the infield fence. The first was of early leader Raymond Earl giving 57-year-old jockey Robert Lee Baird all he could handle. The second was of Steve Cauthen inexplicably hand-riding Affirmed in the final turn to the wire while Alydar charged up quickly on the outside. It's only when I watch and watch again the tape of the 1978 Derby that I realize how close Jim, Mindy, and I were to the finish line. My late father, Frank, and I went to Belmont Park July 4 that year for the Suburban. When Forego pranced into the paddock with his yellow and black Lazy F Ranch blanket rippling, the applause grew in tribute to the champion. It turned out to be Forego's last race. The $5 win ticket is tucked into a collage of souvenirs in our home today. In a different paddock more than two decades later, I witnessed a similar tribute when the 1999 Derby crowd chanted, "Champ! Champ! Champ!" as Louisville native Muhammad Ali raised his fist in salute. In the fall of 1978, I moved to Manchester, N.H., where I still live, to be with my partner. We broke up in 1980. My relationship with Rockingham Park lasted considerably longer. Will there be a Triple Crown winner in 2005? We can only hope that on a backstretch somewhere there's a Thoroughbred, not on a mission to let Babe Ruth's unholy ghost finally rest, but to reel in the years and run into glory.