Paul Batura: Coronavirus forces Kentucky Derby postponement – but race brings back my memories of a 1914 star

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The Kentucky Derby was scheduled to be held Saturday – but like so many events in sports, entertainment and other aspects of our lives, it has been blocked by the coronavirus pandemic.

As a result, the grandstand beneath the famed Twin Spires of Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., will be empty on the first Saturday in May for first time since 1945, when it was delayed until June 9 because of World War II.

The annual “Run for the Roses” has been postponed this year until Sept. 5.

CHURCHILL DOWNS TO REOPEN STABLES, RACE WITHOUT SPECTATORS

First held in 1875, the Kentucky Derby is the first leg of the Triple Crown and the capstone event of a two-week-long celebration in the Bluegrass State.

In an area rich with tradition and charm, Derby festivities include the drinking of mint juleps (a mixture of bourbon, mint and sugar syrup), the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home,” and women wearing big hats – a custom started by the race’s founder, Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr.

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But if only in your mind, I’d like to take you on a journey from the famous track and travel 780 miles to the northeast, to my hometown of Baldwin on Long Island, just outside New York City. A brick house that sits on the corner of Central Avenue and Cottage Place in Baldwin – two houses from the home where I grew up – had a surprising connection to the Kentucky Derby.

When I was a little boy in the 1970s, an old couple lived in the corner house. It was ringed by a chain-link fence that was covered with blooming roses each spring. Lots of roses. So many roses, in fact, that when I would walk to the bus stop for kindergarten, I would start smelling them one house away.

Johnny and Marian McCabe, the owners of the home, seemed to always be tending to those flowers. Mrs. McCabe wore a big floppy hat and the diminutive Mr. McCabe smoked a long, green cigar. Somehow, when he talked, he never took the stogie out of his mouth. He was friendly and always had a smile on his face as he deftly shuffled between the rose bushes.

The McCabes lived there long before I was born, so I’m not sure when I was told or when I fully appreciated their storied history. But as the years rolled on and I gained a greater appreciation for horse racing, I sure wish I knew then what I know now.

As a young man, Johnny McCabe was a jockey – and a very successful one. The high point of his career was winning the Kentucky Derby by eight lengths in 1914 while riding Old Rosebud. The gelding set a race record at the time – completing the mile-and-a-quarter sprint in 2 minutes and 3 seconds.

When Old Rosebud was euthanized in 1922, he was eulogized as “one of the greatest racehorses to ever sport silks on American turf.”

Johnny McCabe would go on to enjoy a successful racing career but nothing would ever top winning the Derby on that first Saturday in May 106 years ago.

I remember a black Cadillac limousine coming to the family’s home every Tuesday morning during racing season. Mr. and Mrs. McCabe would emerge from the house, dressed in their Sunday best. They would climb into the back seat for the chauffeured ride to Belmont Park or Aqueduct Racetrack, where they would watch and, hopefully, successfully wager and return home with their winnings.

How I would have loved to have ridden in that car with the McCabes or sat with them during the races, asking about the past and inquiring what goes through the mind of someone who has been to the summit of his chosen career.

As a kid, it never occurred to me that as Johnny McCabe toiled and tended lovingly to his roses that the act was no doubt bringing him back to the aroma of the lush blanket of 554 red roses that is placed atop each year’s winning horse at the Derby.

My last memory of Johnny McCabe is a sad one. He fell as he stepped off his front brick stoop one morning – I assume on his way to tend to his beloved roses. There he laid, sprawled out on his path.

I remember a gaggle of Baldwin Fire Department paramedics surrounding him and then whisking him away to the hospital. By then he was a very old man, and I don’t think he ever made it back home.

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His wife took up the task of tending to the roses – until she no longer could. She died several years after her beloved husband. I recently looked up a picture of the house online and was pleased to see that a few of the rose bushes remain – but it’s nothing like it was. It never is.

From childhood, roses always intrigued me. Even back then, I knew they were valuable and fragile – but the sharp thorns on the branches scared me and kept me from getting too close.

Roses are something of a metaphor for life – they take time to develop and then at the right moment, bloom in all their beauty. But the dazzle doesn’t last that long and the thorns can really poke – a reminder that you have to take chances and take the bad with the good.

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I’m already looking forward to the Kentucky Derby in September – but I know we’re all especially eager this year for the blooms of spring because in the words of Lady Bird Johnson, “Where flowers bloom so does hope.”

And as the coronavirus pandemic continues to take a deadly toll, we sure could all use some hope.

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