There is more socializing and celebrity gawking than sport, much more. At the end, the feeling is having competed in an alcoholic baton race in which the goal is to finish, just finish.
How did un-horsy Alabamians get hooked into the great Louisville pageant? It began, incongruously, at a newspaper publishers meeting in Florida, a dull affair where conversation centered on three subjects I’m not very good at: golf, equipment and making money.
Through the gloom of boredom came a cheery man with a perky bow tie and a broad, friendly face. He uttered the first intellectually stimulating sentence of the convention, “Have you read Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media?”
Before answering, I said, “Sir, please stay right here; I’ve got to get my wife.” Spotting her, I said, “Come on, I’ve found a live one.” He was Cyrus (Cy) MacKinnon, who ran Barry Bingham Sr.’s enterprises: The Louisville Courier Journal, WHAS-TV and a magazine publishing plant.
We became great friends with Cy and his pretty, no-nonsense New England wife, Wig. They invited us to Derby in 1973, which turned out to be the most exciting race of all time, won by the great Secretariat.
Before Derby we strolled over to the Bingham’s Italianate mansion, whose rooms and grounds were filled with colorful, attractive and interesting people: a Jordanian prince and I compared Bedouin political hierarchy with that of Chicago.
Elegant Barry Sr. and his beautiful, smart, tart wife, Mary, welcomed Josephine and me as fellow members of the family-newspaper tribe. We also met their swashbuckling son, Worth, and the more reserved Barry Jr.
But the race that year was one for the books. It was between two great horses, Sham, and Big Red, as they called Secretariat.
Leaning over the rail in the Bingham box, we watched Big Red gradually move up on the field in the backstretch, and then overtake Sham in the middle of the dash for home. Sham’s time of 1:59 4/5 would have won any other Derby, before or since. Secretariat won by two-fifths of a second and became a Triple Crown winner.
After the excitement of the race, there was an air of serenity at Owsley Brown’s house on a bluff overlooking the Ohio River. A unique feature of the party given by the Brown and Foreman Distillers family is a silver tower whose dozens of spigots dispense a never-ending supply of mint juleps.
Late that evening, our last stop was a drop-in at John Y. Brown’s, just down the hill from the MacKinnons. The Kentucky Fried Chicken magnate and subsequent governor had hosted a party in a kind-of tent city, empty except for several giant mastiffs tearing into the leftovers.
After speaking to John Y., Cy and I headed up the hill but froze when the rock band broke into the chilling, “Thus Spake Zarathrusta” from the movie 2001; multi-colored strobe lights playing on the diaphanous, round bandstand made it look like a living, pulsing membrane from outer space.
The weirdness of that image merges with a series of tragedies, as if in some twisted fairy tale that affected so many of our charmed but fated Louisville newspaper friends.
First, Worth was killed in a freak accident. Subsequently, Cy, a powerful man, was swept out to sea in a rip tide and drowned because of steel knee replacements. A family dispute forced the paper’s sale, Big Barry died, and, finally, Mary’s light went out, dramatically, while making a speech.
Through the years, our friendship of shared values grew with the bright, funny and deeply civilized Barry Jr. and his lovely Edie. As time went on and we aged, Derbies didn’t seem quite so gay or the people as interesting. Barry and I shared an observation that quality is surely headed south when Kato Kaelin, famous only as a tenant of O.J. Simpson, replaces Walter Cronkite as the celebrity guest.
We were lucky to be with Barry and Edie at the 2001 Derby when Monarchos won with the third-best time in Derby history, 1:59.97. Later, I learned that the horse had been bred by an old newspaper friend, Jim Squires, who retired as editor of the Chicago Tribune to breed thoroughbreds.
That last Derby with Barry and Edie was low-key social, warmed by a fire in the library and high, good conversation, the empty great rooms giving the mansion a much larger, empty feel.
A taxi took me from the airport on my last visit to Glenview in early April 2006. Winding up from River Road when the house came into view, crowded with people coming and going, the driver asked, “What is this place?”
I told him, “It is a house.” I could have told him it was the seat of some of the South’s most brilliant people and parties, the house where my dear friend Barry died a few days before. I could have talked for weeks about Barry, the poem he wrote two days before dying, and about his family, but I just said, “It is a house,” and went in to see Edie and their daughters Molly and Emily.
We didn’t go to Derby this year. We had our own Derby party in the kitchen. Josephine sprinkled mint over flavored sparkling water in silver goblets; we watched the race on TV and toasted Barry and Cy.
That was 2007, the Derby hasn’t been the source of much gaiety since.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.