By Jason Klein
I watched the Kentucky Derby with Whitey Ford.
It was just the two of us. Well, not really, but it sure seemed that way.
It was May of 2005, and I was at a charity event in Scarsdale, NY. Brandon Steiner, CEO of Steiner Sports Marketing, had put the affair together at his home, and had attracted a group of former Yankees that would rival any Old Timer’s Day in the Bronx.
While there, I talked hitting with Don Mattingly, pitching with Ron Guidry, and drank some Miller Lite’s with Wade Boggs. I even played poker with reigning World Series of Poker Champion, Chris Moneymaker.
Around 5:30 PM, a bunch of us filed into Steiner’s TV room to watch the 131st Kentucky Derby. That year’s race had a strong pinstriped presence too. The late George Steinbrenner, then still much in control of his beloved Yankees, owned the race’s 5-2 favorite, Bellamy Road. Trained by Hall of Famer, Nick Zito, and coming off a victory in the Wood Memorial, Bellamy Road was Steinbrenner’s best chance to win the storied race. He had tried four times prior and never saw any of his horses finish higher than 5th place. This was his big shot!
The room I was in was packed. Everyone wanted to see how Bellamy Road would do. I couldn’t find a seat, so I leaned up against the wall on the side of the room. Moments before “My Old Kentucky Home” signaled the race’s imminent start, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around and saw that the left hand resting on me was attached to the most famous left arm in New York Yankees history. It was Ford. He was there to watch the race too.
“The Boss is probably nervous as all hell,” he said to me.
“I know, I responded. “You think he’s going to win this thing?”
“I sure hope so,” he said with a stone cold face. “Otherwise, he’s going to be mad as shit.”
I tried to swallow, but suddenly my palms were wet and my throat was dry. During his career, Whitey Ford had that effect on nervous opposing batters. That day, he had the same impact on me. At the time, he was an ornery 76 years old, baseball royalty, and still very intimidating. After that, I don’t remember another person in that room besides Ford and myself.
I was about to share the “greatest two minutes in sports” with the greatest lefty starter in Yankees history. The horses entered the start gate, heard the gun sound, and were off!
Bellamy Road got off to a decent start, keeping pace with the early leader Spanish Chestnut. I looked over at Ford and saw him pumping his fist. He looked encouraged.
Things got very exciting about a minute into the race. That’s when the announcer blurted out, “…and here comes Bellamy Road, who’s charging up on the outside!”
I made eye contact with Ford. He gave me the same confident look he used to give Yogi Berra behind the plate, or so I imagined. He was sure Steinbrenner’s winning ways would continue that day at the Derby.
I remember thinking to myself, “I wonder what it would be like to be watching this race with Steinbrenner?” I also wondered if Ford was thinking the same thing. What an experience that would be! Especially if his horse actually came out on top!
Hold that thought. That’s when things fell apart.
As the horses came down the final stretch, Bellamy Road faded worse than the 1978 Red Sox.
“Come on!” Ford yelled.
It wasn’t meant to be. The Boss’s hyped horse drifted backwards into the pack to finish the race in 7th place. A 50-1 shot, Giacomo, ended up winning that day.
Ford put his hand on my shoulder one more time, brought his lips close to my ear, and whispered, “The Boss is going to be fucking pissed! That I promise you.”
With that, the “Chairman of the Board,” chuckled, patted me on the back, picked up his drink, and walked out of the room.
Ford was right. Steinbrenner must have been seething after that defeat. On the other hand, I think Ford was at peace with the situation – for once, he didn’t have to deal with the boiling boss. He watched the race with me instead.
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