My mother’s stockbroker was explaining to my brother-in-law a frustration of dealing with Mom.
There was a stock she wanted to buy that he had advised against; it just didn’t have much of a chance of doing anything, he thought.
It ended up outperforming everything else in her portfolio. The stock in question: Dollar Tree. Leave it to my cheapska … uh … frugal mom to pick a winning stock and it be Dollar Tree.
That was Mom, my brother-in-law explained, elaborating that every year, she would send her son a list of bets for the Kentucky Derby, and she always won. And he was not wrong, I can say, being the son in question. I would annually crumple up my tickets as the horses crossed the finish line, but still have to dutifully schlep to the pari-mutuel window to cash Mom’s winning tickets.
What was her strategy? Jockeys? Previous performance? Running times? What data was she mining from the Daily Racing Form to place her wagers?
None. She picked by names. She liked cute names. She really liked cat names, which didn’t end up winning in her Derby era, but were on several occasions good for a profitable place or show, like Bluegrass Cat in 2006.
But she did not discriminate against other animals, so Mine That Bird in 2009 was her pick, along with Animal Kingdom in 2011. There was some family story that got her behind Smarty Jones in 2004, and while I had picked Monarchos, my favorite Derby winner, based on some of his connections and performance, Mom just tapped the 2001 winner because my alma mater is Old Dominion University – the Monarchs.
Eventually, I learned my lesson and started basing my bets at least in part on Mom’s choices. As we said, she was chea … uh … thrifty, so Super Saver obviously paid off in 2011.
This year, I don’t know who to choose.
Mom died on April 13, after contending with a variety of complications following a fall last year.
Picking winning Derby horses was just one of the many wonderful qualities of my beautiful, courageous and clever mother. She and her identical twin sister had all kinds of fun confusing the boys of Troy, N.C., and Duke University. Following my father’s death when I was 12, she endured the financial and emotional struggle of single parenthood, but I never knew it because she put on such a brave face. She was a wit who could lay out an entire room in laughter with one quiet comment.
Mom worked until she was 87 and lived to 90.
When we called from Athens, Ga., in the winter of 1998 and told her we were moving to Kentucky, I imagine there was some disappointment that the move wasn’t closer to her home in Virginia Beach, Va. But she was kind of excited that an annual trip to the Kentucky Derby came with the move. She seemed to enjoy it vicariously through me.
Mom had always liked horse racing. She had a little horse-riding in her past, growing up in North Carolina. I remember when I was in elementary school, there was a TV show each week called Let’s Go to the Races, and during the week, you would go to the grocery store and get a ticket that had your pick for each race on it. If your horse won, you’d go back and get some cash. Mom loved it, and I remember her following the Triple Crown campaigns of Seattle Slew and Affirmed in the 1970s. I think she would have liked to have seen another Triple Crown in the 21st century as much as anyone.
Over the years, she toured the Derby Museum, amassed a good julep glass collection — on her first visit to Kentucky, I made a pitcher of mint juleps that had to be the strongest drink that woman ever put to her lips — and, as I saw when I was looking through her stuff last weekend, she taped a lot of Derbys before her last VCR died.
Calling Mom from Churchill Downs was a Derby Day tradition for me to make sure her bets were in order. This year, I expect a melancholy moment when I want to call her and remember, I can’t anymore.
But for me, Derby will endure as an event that helped melt away the miles and mountain range between us. And that is far more valuable than picking a winner.