Nineteen dollars. As a second grader in 1965 who lived in a lower middle class neighborhood that was a lot of money to me. But on the day of my First Communion in May of that year that was how much money I had received from relatives (mainly in $1 increments) to commemorate the occasion.
The communion ceremony took place on the first Saturday in May so I did what any self-respecting catholic boy of Italian decent would do in those times. I bet $2.00 on the Kentucky Derby. To be entirely accurate that is the amount I placed in the family pool for the race. Our “picks” were drawn out of a hat and luckily I picked the horse who went on to win the race under Bill Shoemaker.
I am sure most readers of Past The Wire remember their first bet, especially if it was a winning one. Scooping the pool that day netted me an additional $20 to my $19 stash so I was thrilled. I guess I could insert the standard line of how I should have quit while I was ahead but in retrospect although I did not realize it at the time my introduction to racing that day would start me off on a path that would touch many aspects of my life going forward. On that day, in addition to winning, I was just happy to be included in a serious grown up activity with my adult family members. Although Confirmation is the traditional catholic sacrament that commemorates ones adulthood, on the day of my First Communion I felt like a ‘big boy’.
A few of my uncles let me know that I was lucky to have drawn the horse ridden by Shoemaker but this statement started a debate in the room as to if Shoemaker was a better jockey than Bill Hartack or did “the Shoe” just typically ride better horses. So in a way I was introduced to one of the most traditional handicapping debates that day, the value of jockeys versus horses. This analytical discussion appealed to me as I was, and continue to be a nerdy person, who likes solving puzzles, and to be honest I still enjoy that aspect of handicapping even more that the occasional big score.
It would not be until the 1970’s when I was legally able to bet at a racetrack. I do not remember the horse but that bet was made at Delaware Park and the mount was ridden by a young Chris McCarron. Once I began attending and betting regularly I was able to learn and experience many things at the track. I learned how to manage my money and how mismanagement of it could take an awful toll. I learned that you had to put in the work of handicapping to prepare for a day at the track just as you have to work at anything in life. I made lifelong friends and acquaintances. I introduced my late wife to the world of handicapping and we shared the hobby and good times and meals three to four times a month in The Terrace restaurant at Delaware Park during the live racing season.
Life has marched on and it has been a long time since my First Communion. Mostly everyone who was in that betting pool in 1965 is no longer alive. Oh by the way, I forgot to mention the name of the winner of the 1965 Derby. It was Lucky Debonair. In retrospect that name seems ironic in encapsulating how racing has touched my life and molded in part who I am today. Although I am far from debonair, I have been very fortunate. As I enter the home stretch in my life I realize it is important that I remember that fact even more than I remember my first bet.