• John McGary, Woodford Sun News Editor

Here’s Johnny!

This Derby Day … and others

While millions of Americans were watching the Kentucky Derby and rooting for favorite horses for financial and other reasons, I had a different motive. I was hoping one of several Derby entries with a strong Woodford County connection would win so we could put him on the front page of the Sun.

Justify came through for us, though I can’t claim any credit for the WinStar Farm colt finishing first in the slop at Churchill Downs. Instead, I had a half-stake in $18 worth of bets on longshots, all of which proved why they were longshots. Kudos to Sports Editor Bill Caine for rounding up the winning photo. He may shoot the event – not the horses – next year, and if so, and the right horse wins, it won’t be the first time a photo of his makes the front page.

As I sat back to watch the “most exciting two minutes in sports” Saturday, I couldn’t help but reflect on the 10 or so Derbys I’d covered.

The first was as a traffic reporter aboard WLKY-TV’s helicopter, flown by a fellow known as Chopper Bill. Friends who know of my struggles with geography chuckle at the thought of me guiding motorists, and I seem to recall staying away from street names and relying on phrases like, “Lots of folks are in South Louisville or on their way right now!”

I hope my patter didn’t cause any delays for Derby-bound drivers that day. Anyway, it was neat to fly with Chopper Bill - and to not be stuck in traffic I may have inadvertently made worse.

I covered eight Runs for the Roses for Lexington television stations, including five or six with WLEX-TV after its network, NBC, gained full rights to the Derby. That meant that on Oaks and Derby days, most of us on-air types were on-air from before dawn to 7 or 7:30 p.m., save for 90 minutes when NBC took over. (The photographers and production crews worked just as hard, by the way.)

The 14-hour days were filled with scurries around the paddock, infield and grandstand and fast walks back to the satellite truck to turn in our “look lives.” (A “look live” usually consists of a one-take interview or scene-setting – there’s little time or editing capacity when you’re on the air hour after hour.)

For me and a few colleagues I won’t name here, these tests of stamina and verbal tap-dancing were usually conducted after an evening of revelry at a nearby hotel followed by just a few hours of sleep. However, every year there was enough excitement and potential for mischief to keep most of us going all day.

One year, before doing a live satellite interview with anchor Natalie Morales (then of MSNBC), I teased a colleague by threatening to tell her of his crush on her. He followed me up to the roof and kept an eye and both ears on me during the interview to make sure I didn’t.

Another year, a sudden, intense rain storm left the parking lot flooded, and my stand-up in knee-deep water greatly pleased our weather-centric news director.

My favorite Derby may have been the one in which I pulled the Tom Sawyer “whitewashing the fence” ploy and convinced a reporter to switch photographers with me, but about that, I can say no more.

They were long days, but, however worse the wear we were, they were full of laughs on and off the air.

I used to think how nice it would be to attend an Oaks or Derby without working, but these days I’m quite happy to watch at home, clutching a beverage in one hand and a handful of long shot bets in the other. Besides, I have this fear of heading to Churchill Downs, listening to the radio for traffic tips, and suddenly realizing the reporter in the helicopter is an idiot.

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