When the first notes of â€œMy Old Kentucky Homeâ€ are sounded by the University of Louisville marching band on the first Saturday in May, with the musicians quickly joined by a chorus of voices from the 150,000-plus who make their way into the track each year on that date, there can be little doubt among those who experience that moment that they are taking part in what is arguably the most romantic and emotional moments in sports.
Stephen Fosterâ€™s song resonates with Kentucky Derby fans along with other signature traditions of the great race: the garland of roses, the solid gold winnerâ€™s trophy and the mint juleps (or other beverage of choice) raised in salute to the victor in Americaâ€™s greatest race.
As much as I love that moment on Derby Day â€“ and the hair stood on the back of my neck in 2013 just as it did during my first on-track Derby experience in 1982 â€“ thereâ€™s another version of Fosterâ€™s work that always touches me a bit more.
That is when my friend Steve Buttleman, the longtime Churchill Downs bugler, offers a solo version of that familiar tune.Â The Buttleman solo turn often comes at a joyous celebration: a Derby party, a gathering of racing fans or a special on-track celebration.Â But Fosterâ€™s standard means most to me when it is performed during a time of loss or remembrance.
There is no work in the American songbook that is simultaneously more joyous and somber than â€œMy Old Kentucky Home,â€ an impact directly attributable to the emotional grasp the Kentucky Derby has on all who have been moved by its magic.
The sweeping impact of Fosterâ€™s beauty and the emotions it generates were on display again late Monday morning in the garden at the Kentucky Derby Museum.Â Friends, fans and museum visitors gathered there in tribute to Dust Commander, winner of the 1970 Kentucky Derby.Â Following that ceremony, his remains were buried alongside those of four other Derby heroes: Sunnyâ€™s Halo (1983), Carry Back (1961), Swaps (1955) and Brokers Tip (1933).
The journey of his remains from a Central Kentucky farm to the grounds of the museum was nearly as eventful as the unlikely path that led to his trip to the Kentucky Derby winnerâ€™s circle in the Churchill Downs infield.
Dust Commanderâ€™s name would never be included on a roster of the greatest horses to win the Kentucky Derby, but he was five lengths the best â€“ one of the more emphatic margins in the history of the race â€“ at odds of 15-1 on his Derby Day.
â€œHe was,â€ wrote the late and legendary Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, â€œthe only horse in the field that didnâ€™t look like he was crossing the Delaware on ice.â€
Dust Commander â€“ who ran in a maiden race early in his career for a $7,500 claiming tag and lost â€“ earned no championship honors during his career and, in fact, won only one more race after his big day at Churchill Downs.Â But it could be argued that the Derby topped by his triumph was a distinctive and unjustly overlooked renewal of the Run for the Roses.
His victory in the 96th Derby gave us 31-year-old trainer Don Combs, among the youngest ever to saddle a Derby winner, and Connecticut-born jockey Mike Manganello, a Churchill Downs regular who in the Derby leftÂ a group of riders that included Derby winners Bill Hartack, Bill Shoemaker, Braulio Baeza, Angel Cordero Jr. and Milo Valenzuela in his, well, dust.
It was a Derby for the history books because Diane Crump climbed into the saddle aboard longshot Fathom to become the first female rider to compete in the race.Â She would finish 15th of 17 starters that day for Louisville-based owner W.L. Lyons Brown.
And wandering through the Derby Day throng was Louisville native Hunter S. Thompson, whose Derby Week experiences and observations emerged in vivid first-person prose when published as â€œThe Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,â€ a Gonzo journalism classic that continues to command and inspire a devoted audience more than four decades later.
Dust Commander had displayed promise during the winter before his unlikely Derby win when he won a minor stakes race in Florida.Â But his truly meteoric peak occurred during a dizzying four-week stretch in Kentucky that included three races during the brief Keeneland meet capped by a 36-1 upset in the slop in the Blue Grass Stakes, and his romp over a â€œgoodâ€ surface at Churchill Downs just nine days later in the Derby.
That latter moment, intoxicating as it was, would mark end of his romantic spring.
Dust Commander finished ninth in the Preakness after missing several days of post-Derby training, and he team fell apart when Combs resigned shortly after the Triple Crownâ€™s second jewel.Â Manganello would ride in three more Derbies, but would never approach a repeat of his triumph aboard Dust Commander that towers above the rest of his more than 2,500 career victories.
The colt winner ended his racing career in 1971 with eight wins in 42 races, but got off to a promising start as a stallion for Lehmann by siring Preakness winner Master Derby in his first crop and Run Dusty Run, the runner-up to unbeaten Seattle Slew in all three classics during that starâ€™s 1977 Triple Crown run, in his early crops.Â But he had been sold for breeding duty in Japan before his successful offspring hit the track.Â Breeder John Gaines paid a big ticket to bring him back to Kentucky to stand at his Gainesway Farm, but Dust Commander enjoyed little success in the breeding shed upon his return.
Robert Lehmann died in 1974, and his Derby winner passed in 1991 at Springland Farm.Â He was buried on the property, with only a plain stone marker designating the site.Â The Lehmann family donated Dust Commanderâ€™s solid gold Kentucky Derby winnerâ€™s trophy to the Kentucky Derby Museumâ€™s collection in 2006, but efforts to exhume his remains for reburial in Louisville proved frustrating.Â After several unsuccessful attempts to locate the remains, a new effort led by the Derby Museum, the new Thoroughbred Breedersâ€™ Museum in Paris, Ky., and a determined Verna Lehmann, Robertâ€™s widow, finally achieved ended in success only last Friday.Â Shovels had failed to do the job, so a backhoe was enlisted this time around and it unearthed Dust Commanderâ€™s remains on property that is now part of Woodline Farm.
Three days later â€“ with Dust Commanderâ€™s remains in a handcrafted box and his Derby trophy close by â€“ the Derby winner was recalled comments by Combs; saluted with both the â€œCall to the Postâ€ and â€œMy Old Kentucky Homeâ€ from Buttlemanâ€™s bugle, and was laid to rest â€“ again â€“ just a few yards from the spot in the Churchill Downs homestretch where he burst to the lead in the 1970 Derby.Â He now rests, with his four Derby-winning companions, a little more than a furlong from Churchill Downsâ€™ world famous finish post.
It was a lovely service, with Verna Lehmann and members of her family joining Combs, who still trains a few horses at the age of 74, and Manganello, most recently a steward at Cincinnatiâ€™s River Downs, looking on and recalling the special moments of May 2, 1970.
All assembled in the Great Hall of the museum to watch Dust Commander burst to the lead in the homestretch and quickly expand his lead as the legendary Chic Anderson, voice of the Derby and Churchill Downs, called him home.
While watching that race, the 43 years between his stylish Kentucky Derby victory and his return to the Kentucky Derby Museum and Churchill Downs seemed only an instant.Â And the ceremony ended as it should have.
There have been only 139 winners of the Kentucky Derby â€“ one per year since the inaugural running in 1875 â€“ and each is special in his or her way.Â All deserve the belated sendoff that Dust Commander received on Monday.Â With memories and smiles, and Steve Buttleman playing the saddest and grandest of songs for those who love the great race.
Dust Commander was back at his Old Kentucky Home.
Photos courtesy the Kentucky Derby Museum