Robert Haydon Jones and Greg Lippert

Greg Lippert
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They

The Derby
By Robert Haydon Jones

Jimmy O’Hara had bet more than fifty Kentucky Derbies from afar. However, he had never seen a Derby in person at Churchill Downs in Louisville Kentucky.

So, when John, a much younger friend of his, mentioned he had been invited to the Derby by a college classmate, recently appointed as the Official Derby Host, Jimmy had urged John to accept – and to ask if he could also bring Jimmy along.

Jimmy was thrilled when John’s friend told them to come ahead. Of course, they should also attend the Oaks, the Derby for fillies and mares held on Friday. So, he sent four free passes for a special section of the Club House right on the finish line reserved for Owners and Trainers and celebrities. Food and drink would be provided. Normally, the admission price each day was $880.

John drove them out to Louisville in a new Bentley he had borrowed from an uncle. They came in by way of West Virginia. They followed the river courses. Then they took the old roads that had been cut through mountains.  It rained heavy every mile of the way.


When Jimmy was 19, he went to a track and it took him down hard. The problem was he came away thinking he was lucky. He won some money. He got caught up in the crowd roars coming around the turn and all the way down the stretch to the wire. He would be yelling too. But he really couldn’t hear his own voice.

The roar began on the turn, then surged and surged again the last 70 yards to the wire. Jimmy would be yelling hard — caught in the roar and buffeted by it until it disappeared. If Jimmy was still connected in the silent aftermath, he definitely felt like a winner. The chances were good he would also get to cash a ticket.

The deadly part of it was that he was convinced he was lucky. He had soon realized that he was, at best, an average handicapper. But even so, now and again, he would cash a ticket for a huge win. These monstrous payouts were the luck. They were the proof.

Being a lucky man changed everything for Jimmy. It was a force other people felt in him. His clients and his mates at the Agency felt it. Woman felt it. His family felt it. Jimmy felt it more than anyone. He attended the races frequently. Then he bet daily with bookmakers. Even away from it, he felt he was still connected to the roar and still worthy of the proof.

Once he won $15,000 from two other regulars on the finish line at Belmont. They were sure their horse had beaten Jimmy’s in a three-horse blanket finish. Jimmy said it was a 3-way dead heat. That was virtually impossible and so the two regulars bet Jimmy he was wrong. He was right.

Once he shared a cab from Belmont back to the city with a beautiful woman whom he had known for several years as part of the crowd he mixed with at New York tracks. Pat was the mistress of a nasty gangster who loved the horses.

Jimmy was stuck in a rough patch. His wife was unhappy. He was very, very unhappy. Pat asked him in for a drink. They talked for hours. She treated him with such tenderness and compassion that he felt centered again.

The next day an insane drifter followed Pat home to the lobby of her apartment building and cut off Pat’s head with a huge carving knife. Jimmy didn’t hear about it until weeks later. He was in England for a shoot of several new commercials for British Travel.

Jimmy kept on with the horses. His luck rescued him time and again. A bookmaker paid him $63,000 on a three-horse parlay and Jimmy spread the cash out on his bed for his wife to see and count. He told the wife that the money was hers – to do with whatever she felt like. She never again complained about his gambling.

The fact was that even with the $63,000, Jimmy was way down at the track. Way down. But he sure didn’t feel like a loser. He felt lucky. Of course, the bookies knew better.

Jimmy stayed with the horses for years. Then one April morning as he got ready to bet the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct a gentle voice inside of him suggested he take a pass. He did not bet that day. He paid off his bookies. From then on, he played the Triple Crown races and the Breeders Cup contests like a civilian. The fact was he had become a civilian.

One year, he had two long-shot winners in the Derby and the Belmont but he wasn’t tempted. He was a genuine civilian. The lucky pulse inside him was gone – and people close to him like his wife were sad about that. But there was another pulse in its place and Jimmy felt blessed by a miracle.


They met Jerome Henderson, John’s friend, at a special gate to the Paddock. It was Friday, but the crowd was surging and raucous. Two of Jerome’s assistants, burly men, clearly uncomfortable in ties and coats, guided them through. They took a freight elevator, wended through a huge room jammed with food and liquor supplies and finally, up two flights of back stairs. Then Jerome opened a door and they stepped into the Club House and the celebrity sanctuary.

Jerome soon had to depart to tend to his hosting duties but John and Jimmy were fine on their own. The food was magnificent. They wandered from enclave to enclave and helped themselves. On Friday, Jimmy had three winners including the victor in the Oaks. John cashed a hefty wager on a long-shot that covered all his expenses and then some.

They were handsome men who knew their way around – they blended in easily. Actually, there was a surfeit of beautiful women. The Second and Third wives were easy to identify. So, were the undefeated incumbents.

That night they had an early dinner at Jerome’s house. Pasta and red sauce and tasty shelled shrimp. Over cocktails, Mohamed Ali’s widow greeted Jimmy effusively. She told Jerome that Jimmy had helped Ali sparkle on TV.

Jerry Bailey, retired after years as one of the top jockeys, also gave Jimmy the big hello. “Long time, no see, Jimmy”, he said. “Way too long. I’ll never forget those good times we had on Fire Island.”

On Saturday, John and Jimmy got up early, checked out of their hotel and had a fabulous breakfast at a Waffle House. They drove out to Churchill Downs and were escorted back to the celebrity sanctuary in the Club House.

Once again, the food was amazing. The wives looked better than ever. They went easy on the races. Jimmy told John he was going “all in” on a long shot in the Derby. He was up $1,000 so far and he was going to bet $300 across the board on a 30-1 shot, Country House.

As the minutes blinked down to post time for the Derby, it began to rain hard again. Jimmy and John stood in plastic capes at the rail on the second floor of the Club House. The horses were in the gate.

The crowd began to yell for the race to start. The crowd roar went louder and louder and louder. Jimmy joined in, as loud as he could. He was astonished he was yelling for just a fraction of a second and then the gates sprang open.

Jimmy and John both yelled hard during the race. Their horses had a chance in deep stretch. But Maximum Security galloped to a three-length victory. So Jimmy got second and John third. They were looking at handsome payouts on these long-shots, but Jimmy was grousing.

“The winner was all over the place out there”, he told John. “He banged your horse really hard. But they have never taken down a winner in the Derby and they aren’t about to start now.”

Nearly 20 minutes later, the Stewards took Maximum Security all the way down to 17thplace and created a huge payout for Jimmy and a very handsome return for John.

The next day, when Jimmy got home, he spread the money out on the bed and his wife counted it twice.

“Let’s go to the Grand Canyon,” she said. “Let’s go in a couple of weeks.”

“Okay,” Jimmy said, “Let’s go for it.”

The Grand Canyon trip was #1 on their bucket list.

“Okay, for sure? What about the Preakness?”

“We’ll watch it on TV”, Jimmy said. He kissed his wife on the lips.

“I’m still a civilian honey. I’m just a lucky civilian.”


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  1. Posted June 19, 2019 at 8:58 pm | #

    Nice, Jones.

  2. Posted June 20, 2019 at 7:25 am | #

    A history at the track nicely done by Jimmy O’Hara’s Boswell. Jones never disappoints.

  3. Posted July 2, 2019 at 12:18 pm | #

    Heartfelt tale about discovering what real luck. Well done, Jones.

  4. Posted July 10, 2019 at 2:16 pm | #

    How’d he do it? Jones overcame my total ignorance of horse racing and left me fascinated.

  5. Posted July 30, 2019 at 6:06 pm | #

    Well done, Jones! You put us right there!