I remember most of the horse races that I have attended in person quite well, even the distant ones. The second Derby that I attended in person, and the first I had memories of the race itself of, was the 1998 Kentucky Derby. At the time, I was a UK fan--as were the rest of my family--that just saw them win the National Championship. We even walked by Tubby Smith in the tunnel where we watched the races that year and told him "good job" for bringing #7 to UK. Funny how times change, since I'm an alumnus of the University of Louisville that has rooted for the Cards since 2007. Fourteen years can feel like an eternity sometimes. Especially if you're only 23 years old. Doubly so after the recent deaths of relatives.
My dad leaned towards Indian Charlie as a key horse and the main threat to win the Derby that year. Little did we know that Real Quiet, "the Fish," would show up and shine at the Downs in the Run for the Roses. Everyone in the party lost money on the race, and everyone I knew did lose out on the 1998 Derby, except for one person. My late Uncle Bish who died last February bet a few dollars to win on Real Quiet in that year's Derby. We all rooted him on in the Preakness to much delight. The Belmont Stakes of 1998 was my first brush with the full fledged stomach punch in sports. He looked clear in the stretch, but was toiling late in the running. Victory Gallop ran him down late to win by a nose in the "$5 Million Photo" that Tom Durkin couldn't call at the wire. I was annoyed with Victory Gallop for beating Favorite Trick earlier that year, and even more so for doing it in the Belmont when a Triple Crown winner could have happened. But I'll always remember that one as the year Uncle Bish picked the Derby winner in 1998.
While that disappointment is stark in the sports fan sense, it pales in comparison to the loss of a loved one. Real Quiet's Derby reminds me of my late Uncle Bish at one of his best moments before his health started to take its toll on him. He later died February 18, 2012. I rooted for UK as long as they didn't get in the way of U of L in his honor in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. I even mentioned that "With my luck, they'll play each other [in the NCAA Tournament]." So, of course, UK and U of L played in New Orleans that year. Seems fitting that UK won for him in 2012, since he was a huge UK fan. He was also a big Reds fan, but sadly, they didn't finish the job after going up 2-0 to lose 2-3 in the National League Division Series to the Giants. And U of L won this year for me and many other Cards fans.
It hits even harder now that my aunt, his wife, died yesterday. Both of them were like my grandparents, even though they were aunt and uncle, since my grandparents either died when I was really young (dad's side), weren't around that much (mom's dad), or were suffering so much that it was easier to see them go to ease their pain (both grandmas, my mom's dad).
My aunt always linked me to baseball, since my family saw me play a lot when I was younger (ages 6-15). I remembered her as a de facto grandmother that always cared for her family and others and connected to her through baseball. She was there a few games my last season that I played when we finally won a league championship after 7 years of not winning one. And was there for countless other big moments in my life. As was my uncle.
I remember my uncle best through his wisdom. One of those wise moments happened in the 1998 Derby. While the 1998 Belmont Stakes is the most "ugh" I've felt about the result of a horse race that didn't have a bad injury involved, it's never as rough as losing loved ones. But sports did help me to remember him and my aunt as they were in their primes rather than how things were for the both of them right before they died. At least they can be their true selves now, with the best view of the racetrack and all the other sporting events, that you can ask for up in the sky. Doesn't take away the pain, but there's always another race to run, another game to play, another day, another hour, and another minute to make the best of what's around us. Both sports and my late aunt and uncle taught me that. Rest in peace, Aunt Doris and Uncle Bish. Enjoy the view upstairs.