Kentucky Derby brings back unpleasant memories

by Gary Shelton on May 8, 2016 · 0 comments

in general

Sunday, 5:45 a.m.

The worst trip in the history of sportswriting was to the Kentucky Derby.

It was me who was taken for a ride.

It's funny. I never cared much for covering the Kentucky Derby. Wally Matthews, then of Newsday, later of ESPN, used to tell me it was the best gig going. You were there before dawn -- it was a wonderful sight as the sun rose over the track -- and you were done before breakfast. The entire day was yours.

Yeah, I said, but you're in a lousy hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. The golf courses were packed. You couldn't get into a movie. In other words, I had more time than ability to do anything about it.

So I was a little depressed to start with to go to the Derby. Mind

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you, others liked it. There was a betting window in the press box, and a lot of turf writers knew a heck of lot more about dosage indexes than I do. They found the track to be fascinating. I admit it is more my fault than the track's that I did not.

Oh, there were memorable moments. George Steinbrenner slugged me hard on the shoulder once at a joke I made while at his barn. Another reporter (from Minnesota) and I passed an entire afternoon quoting from Fargo. You could get by a day or so making fun of the hats.

When you arrived in Louisville early in the week, you automatically went to Churchill Downs first. You tried to get something into the notebook. It is only afterward that you showed up at a seedy hotel that rhymes with , let's call it, “Holibay Bin.”

Now, it was always hard to find a decent hotel, as this story will tell you. This was where I was assigned. I didn't even make the main hotel. I was put in a room in a nearby building. I had to take my rental truck (no lie) down to it.

So I go to the hotel room. The phone didn't work. The TV didn't work. The air conditioner made noises. From the smell of thing, there may have been a dead body their recently. If Steve Martin had stayed in a fleabag hotel in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, this would have been the one.

I trudged up to the office, where they gave me another room. I went back down the hill. Exasperated, I tried to open the door. It wouldn't budge. I pushed harder. Nothing. I trudged back up the hill. The guy tried the key in a little machine he had. “It works,” he announced, as if he had cured cancer. “I'm sorry, “ I said. “But the test for a key is whether it opens a door, not whether it makes your machine go beep.”

The manager sighed heavily. He came around the desk and walked down the hill. He tried the door himself. Still stuck. So he lowers his shoulder like Bronco Nagurski at the goal line. He rammed his shoulder into it like on an episode of Law and Order. He burst through, stumbling into the room. He smiled and waved his hand. “Voila!”

I shook my head. “Do you expect me to shoulder the door open every time?”

He did. He also expected me to ignore the noise from the pipes.

Oh, well, I thought. I wouldn't be at the hotel much. And he didn't have a third room. Like most of the rooms, this one had been paid far in advance, and there was nothing else available.

So I stayed. And I hated it. The carpet was crappy. The room was crappy. The stay was crappy.

Then, on race night, I came home tired. There isn't much to a Derby race as far as distance, but you do a lot of interviews before writing. Then you write. Then you go to a media dinner.

It was late when I returned to the hotel. The message light was blinking. I diiled the operator.

“Sir, you need to settle up your bill. It has exceeded your deposit.”

“Oh,” I said. “Well, I have to check with my office and home. Can't I do it in the morning?””

“No,” I was told. “You need to come NOW.''

“I won't,” I said. “You've had my deposit for months. I'm going to call my wife.” And I did. I checked in with the office. Only then did I trudge up the hill. I was a little annoyed, to be honest.

I went into the office and told the person I had been told to clear up my bill. And – swear to goodness — the person ran her numbers, rechecked, then looked at me and said this:

“That'll be 38 cents.”

I was furious. They had my money for months, and for 38 cents, they had given me grief. I thought it was stupid.

So I stormed back down the hill. I went into the room (the door was sticking less, perhaps because someone was finally staying in the room). I slept a few hours, then got up. I went by the office to make sure everything was ok.

It was and it wasn't.

The clerk told me that, once the bill was tallied, I actually had a surplus for four dollars or so. But they weren't going to give it back to me because I had paid so long ago. I was amazed. It was up to them whether they gave change?

This is the kind of thing that always ticked me off, but I never wrote to company headquarters. This time, it was so absurd that I did. I was irate. I was mad as hell and I wasn't going to take it anymore.

A few weeks later, I got a letter from the head office. And guess what? It included a certificate for a free night at that hotel.

I wrote back. You don't understand, I said. If the nuclear bombs were falling, and this was the only shelter in a nine-state region, I wouldn't stay there. I hoped I never drove past it again.

I still have that certificate. I shake my head at it still.

After all this time, that's the remaining memory from Churchill Downs.
Horse crap.

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