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Missing the Kentucky Derby, but remembering it with 'Unbridled' passion

Thirty years.


Turns out Paul Anka was right. Memories are time we borrow to spend when we get to tomorrow.

And there have been a whole lot of tomorrows since 30 years ago this weekend, when a bunch of college kids down to their last nickel left Rockingham Park on Kentucky Derby Day with more money than we'd ever seen.

There was supposed to be a Kentucky Derby on Saturday. It would have been cause to gather, watch and bet. It's a holy day of sports obligation to many of us.

We all have days like this in some form, days when memories carry us on a rainbow, even only briefly. Derby Day qualifies annually for "the fellas," as we call ourselves: Mike Michalisin, John Fox, John Hosman, John Ratcliffe and Mike Crimmins, the guys for whom I'd give a lung if they needed it.

We had no live Derby to unite us Saturday. But a recent Zoom call helped the six of us recall one of the greatest days of our lives that's amazingly now 30 years old.

It was May 1990. All of us BC boys were a few weeks from graduation. No money left whatsoever. But it had become tradition to bet the Derby because we had our own Horse Guy. Michalisin, who has become a horse owner in adult life, would always make the pick for us.

None of us knew a blessed thing about horses. We thought the "morning line" was "what's a nice girl like you doing in a Dunkin' Donuts like this?" But Mike? He knew furlongs, blinkers and Lasix. So we always let him pick. He hadn't been right to that point, but then heckling him was half the fun anyway.

"As freshman in college, a group of us went to Suffolk Downs (in East Boston) to watch our selection, Bet Twice, finish second to Alysheba," Mike said. "It was a simpler time. No job. No kids. No environmentally friendly minivan with dual rear flip-down video and gaming entertainment system. No cell phones. Lots of parties and staying out late. I miss those times. But at some point we all have to grow up and get a cell phone."

Mike made the pick in 1990 via a mock press conference in his on-campus apartment: Unbridled. A 12-1 shot.

We went to watch the race at Rockingham, "The Rock" as we called it, a track in southern New Hampshire that lasted 110 years before closing in 2016. Not to say we were popular, but we had money from a good 30 other friends on campus. Heck, BC's director of housing at the time, Bob Capalbo, accompanied us. We were rock stars.

We wore shirts and ties. Irritated everyone else around us. Sang "My Old Kentucky Home." Forced down mint juleps, which nobody told us were goblets of bourbon with the sprigs of mint floating in them. Paying for this stuff with loose change. If Unbridled lost, we would have declared prohibition for the last three weeks of school. No money left.

The race began. So did the heckling. No mention of Unbridled.

Until ... all hope lost ... track announcer Dave Johnson uttered still my favorite three words in the English language: "Here comes Unbridled." He closed better than Mariano Rivera. I swear we were the only people in the place with Unbridled, too, based on our noise level.

I probably won $300, which at the time felt like more than was in the Lufthansa heist. We figure Mike was responsible for around a combined $5,000 that day.

We celebrated, sang and later feared, as Hosman said, "we'd get rolled in the parking lot" on the way to the car. Later that night, in our home office (otherwise known as Arbuckles, our favorite gin mill), Mike walked in amid cheers and even chants of his name. John Ratcliffe even lit a cigar by burning a $10 bill.

No Derby days have come close since. None could. But just as Rick and Ilsa always had Paris, we'll always have The Rock.

I really missed the Derby on Saturday.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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