Jerry Tabor, the mutuel clerk, witnessed his first Derby in 1944. Pensive won the race, though some of the particulars have faded with time. What Tabor remembers clearly is how he got to Churchill Downs in the first place.
“I was born in Bowling Green, and my mother died the day they struck Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. I was 12, and the next year my dad and I moved to Louisville. Well, my dad got married again, and my stepmother's father – I guess my step-grandfather you would call him – had a contract with Churchill Downs to take all their pictures. He got me to help him carry in the cameras. We'd set up those big box stands and take a picture of the crowd, when everyone used to lean against the rail, and then we'd go set 'em up on the roof and take a picture of the post parade, that kind of stuff. But I think my primary job was to drape blankets out in the infield and save grandma and all the family a place, because we came in at 6 in the morning.”
"I remember back in 1944, and there were only about five people who worked in the office. And you know what gets me: We still had about 125,000 people who came to the Derby then. Now, it just blows my mind."
“I did that 'til I got out of high school. And then one thing led to another. My first high school sweetheart, her uncle was a trainer who was formidable around here at one time. Then I worked for a doctor in the first-aid room. Finally, Jim Filbert, who was the mutuel manager, said 'You've been coming around here long enough,' so they put me in my first window, and that was, gosh, about 50 years ago.”
Tabor said he's a big racing fan, but with little time to study this year's field, he was at a loss to pick a winner. But he does have a connection to Churchill Downs racing secretary Ben Huffman, who helped put together this year's field.
“Some of my greatest friends are owners and trainers,” Tabor said. “Ben Huffman's dad, Blackie, and his uncle, Neil, we were all good friends for years. I'm getting old, I'll be 84 in July. But the good lord has blessed me … I remember back in 1944, and there were only about five people who worked in the office. And you know what gets me: We still had about 125,000 people who came to the Derby then. Now, it just blows my mind.”
When Orb splashed to victory today, photographer Dan Dry was positioned about 35 yards past the finish line, along the outside rail, to capture the kind of images that have made him a fixture at Churchill Downs. Dry, 58, shot his first Derby in 1976 and said the racing bug “bit me hard.”
“My first year as a staff photographer, they sent me to Florida to do Derby prep stuff on a little-known horse called Seattle Slew."
“I started as a senior in college at Ohio University, the Courier-Journal brought me in, and that Derby was won by Bold Forbes. I've missed two Derbies, one when I was abroad shooting for National Geographic, and the second time when I just decided, to heck with it, I'm not going to shoot it. I sat up in the boxes with a date – long before I was married – and Angel Cordero won on Spend A Buck wire-to-wire, and I thought I was going to be sick to my stomach that I didn't shoot it. And I'll never do that again.”
Every Derby has provided special memories, Dry said, none more so than in 1977, when the Louisville newspaper gave him what at the time seemed like just another assignment.
“My first year as a staff photographer, they sent me to Florida to do Derby prep stuff on a little-known horse called Seattle Slew. So Seattle Slew winning the Derby, he was a really special horse, but I have special memories of every Derby. I think Calvin Borel is amazing – he's such a hard-working guy – so any time he wins. The other memory that stands out is when Lynn Whiting and Pat Day won with Lil E. Tee. Lynn has become a really good friend, and Pat is a nice friend and acquaintance.”
The Derby experience has changed dramatically over the years, Dry said. He has the pictures to prove it
“The physical plant has grown, and is nothing short of amazing with the suites, with what they have done in the clubhouse,” he said. “The biggest change I've seen is the sponsorships, which is a great thing because it can bring more money to the purses … and it gets a lot of people who normally wouldn't be interested in horse racing interested in the Derby and interested in Louisville.”
In the elevator that ferries the rich and famous to the Turf Club and Millionaire's Row, Winifred Lee held court Saturday, lighting up her elevator cab with laughter and an outsized personality.
“I have made a lot of friends since I've been here. I mean a LOT of friends, I mean serious, I have."
“I try to accommodate all my guests,” she said with a throaty laugh. “I have made a lot of friends since I've been here. I mean a LOT of friends, I mean serious, I have. And I enjoy people – I'm a people person – and I enjoy talking.”
Born and raised in Louisville, Lee, 62, returned to her hometown after her mother died at 94 and Lee, the youngest of 10 children, inherited the family home. She has no horse background, but is learning to appreciate the lore of Churchill Downs and the science of handicapping, even if she's not a horseplayer.
“I like the people, and I'm learning about the horses,” she said. “What I mean is, I love reading the program books. I actually read the program books, the history and that, because if I'm working somewhere, I want to know more about what I'm actually doing. I've learned a lot.”
With owners and trainers shuffling in and out all day, Lee was privy to some inside information.
“There's a lot of horses,” she said about an hour before the Derby. “Put it this way, I've heard about Orb, I've heard about a lot of different horses, but I'm not actually a horse bettor. I just read that book because it has a lot of information on it, and then people say 'You know' and I say 'No I don't!”