Triple Crown Brings Thoughts of Past Friends

When the Boston Red Sox ended 87 years of frustration and put the “Curse of the Bambino” to rest with a World Series championship in 2004, longtime fans and friends as well as family members of BoSox fans long departed were moved to talk of their absent friends and loved ones.

Makeshift shrines popped up throughout New England, constructed by fans compelled to find some way to physically share that seemingly-impossible championship with loved ones that had passed, many of them gone for decades.

Lovers of Thoroughbred racing have some knowledge of that sentiment and the explosion of emotions that occur in a breakthrough moment. It happened at Belmont Park nearly three weeks ago when Zayat Racing Stable’s American Pharoah halted racing’s long Triple Crown drought with a dominant sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.

And like so many Red Sox admirers, American Pharoah’s Triple Crown triumph has been accompanied by thoughts of absent friends. Three, in particular, lead that parade.

One is Dan Farley, a friend who spent a good chunk of his life covering the Kentucky Derby and the sport at the Blood-Horse, Thoroughbred Times and, for 25 years, London’s Racing Post.

While I cannot pinpoint exactly when we met, I know he walked with assistance through the stable area when we did so. We never discussed his ailment, as he was too busy talking about his passions: basketball, racing, the Indiana University Hoosiers, barbecue joints and family (not necessarily in that order) to focus on anything else.

Photo by Reed Palmer | Churchill Downs

Photo by Reed Palmer | Churchill Downs

Dan Farley died on Kentucky Oaks Day, passing one day after he had collapsed in the Virginia home he and his amazing wife, Betsy, had shared.

We had spoken by phone hours earlier, moments for which I will be forever grateful. While driving home from the Derby’s draw for post positions, I had an urge to call Dan. It was terrific conversation and, from my vantage point in my car parked in a mall parking lot, I told him how impressed I had been by a weekend workout by American Pharoah and expressed my conviction that he would not lose on Saturday.

During a memorial service last week in Lexington, I finally learned that Dan’s health challenge had been FacioScapuloHumeral Muscular Dystrophy, one of the most prevalent forms of MS. Those who would like to remember him with a donation can do so through the FSH Society, 450 Bedford Street, Lexington, MA 02420, or online at fshsociety.org.

Another close to heart and mind in recent days is Jim Bolus, the greatest of all Kentucky Derby historians and a writer for the Courier-Journal for more than two decades.

Jim’s last published work was a “Final Turn” column in the Blood-Horse in which he described the joy of witnessing Silver Charm’s gutty Derby win over Captain Bodgit. Bolus also noted how longtime Louisville Times and Courier-Journal columnist Mike Barry would have loved Baffert. At the time, the future Hall of Fame trainer was known as much for his wisecracking charm as for his obvious ability to train a racehorse.

“Mike would have loved the actual race most of all,” Bolus wrote. “He liked nothing better than a great horse race, and that’s what we were privileged to see at the 1997 Derby.”

Days after he penned those words, and four days before Silver Charm’s similarly dramatic victory in the Preakness, Jim collapsed and died following an evening jog. He was 54.

The third absent friend was Jeff “Crawdog” Crawford, a radio personality in Huntington, West Virginia and a lifelong friend from time shared as WKU classmates and radio teammates at Bowling Green’s WBGN-AM.

We shared at least two other things: an abiding love for racing and an appreciation for the near-redemptive joy of cashing in a winning mutuel ticket. We cut a few classes for journeys north and east to Churchill Downs and Keeneland, and I remain somewhat thankful that Kentucky Downs and its OTB in nearby Franklin did not exist during our matriculation on The Hill.

Jeff’s life ended at age 55 after a long battle with cancer in his adopted hometown on March 10.

Taking a cue from Red Sox fans, this column will serve as my shrine to these friends and so many others whose lives have joyfully intersected with mine through racing and the Derby.

In his final Blood-Horse piece, Bolus recalled a lesson offered by Daily Racing Form icon Joe Hirsch: “You learn something from every Derby.”

The Silver Charm Derby was Jim’s 38th Run for the Roses, and he shared in his last published words a thought we could all keep in our respective back pockets – especially following a magical spring classic season he would have undoubtedly loved.

“One final lesson that I learned from this Derby was when we do witness such a thrilling race, when we do see two gallant runners battling it out to the finish, we should appreciate it. … It can’t get much better than that.” VT