The Kentucky Derby runs on the first Saturday in May each year, under the twin spires at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. For as long as I can remember, my father was interested in horse racing, and he became a horse owner before I entered high school. I can also remember my mother giving me $18 to put on the great Alysheba, who won the 1987 Kentucky Derby. So you can definitely say horse racing is in my blood.
The Meet-Cute of a Lifetime
When I was a kid, I would often spend my time at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, and I would sneak around and try to make small bets. I had no idea what I was doing, but then I spent some time on the backside of the track and got to see the horses up close. I would watch them train in the morning and started to realize that these beasts truly are athletes. They all have different traits and personalities. I was hooked. Horse racing was quickly becoming my passion.
When I made it as a full-time big leaguer in 2001, I lived in Pasadena above hall of fame jockey Mike Smith. He once complained to our building superintendent that I was too loud. When he came to confront me about it, we recognized each other and laughed. See, what happened was, I would get home late from games and he had to be up early to go to work, so our schedules clashed — but we soon became fast friends and he introduced me to my first trainer.
I bought my first horse for trainer Simon Bray, who is now a great horse racing analyst. I named the horse The Weej, after my father. My pops looks like Luigi from the Mario Brothers. The Weej couldn’t run a step. In fact, he broke his maiden (won his first race) in a low-level race at Turf Paradise — which was a bit of irony I always appreciated.
Over the years, I’ve owned close to 15 horses here and there, and I’ve loved every minute of it. It’s a joy that’s really hard to explain. I try and tell people that I would never get nervous hitting in a big spot, but I was a nervous wreck when my horses ran. It’s completely out of your control and drives you totally insane. As an athlete and competitor you want to help your horses, but you can’t. You have to put your trust in your team, trainer, jockey and, of course, the horse.
When I retired after the 2008 season, Simon called me and asked if I wanted to come on a horse racing broadcast. I had no experience, but I was game. They started me on the Belmont Stakes Day undercard. I actually got lucky and picked a winner. One thing led to another, and I was part of the broadcast team. I’ve been doing it for the better part of nine years (save for a brief comeback attempt with the Rockies in 2010).
Just Like Catching
I never thought I would be doing this, but I truly love it. As a catcher, my job was to figure out a puzzle of how to get a hitter out. In a way, handicapping horses is very similar. You need to be well prepared, see where the pieces of the puzzle fit and find an advantage.
Hopefully, I’ll help you find an advantage in the lead-up to Saturday’s race. I’ll be providing a betting guide and a story about my best score at the Derby, and I’m going to rank the contenders from 1-20 — and that’s just the beginning.
Giddy up and be prepared to brag to your friends about how you’re going to pick the winner of the Kentucky Derby.