‘And they’re off!’

DerbyI’m not sure when I got the game. I might have been twelve. But at some store – Woolworth’s? Kresge’s? I don’t remember – I saw the Kentucky Derby Racing Game and wanted it enough to either wheedle its price out of one of my parents or pay for it with my own limited funds. (More likely the former.)

It really wasn’t much of a game, as a glance at the photo above reveals. The winner was the horse whose number came up on the spinner fifteen times. No favorites, no dark horses, no upsets. Just spins of a plastic arrow. I played it frequently for a while, then sporadically for a longer while, then not at all.

Eventually, it sat in a closet at the house on Kilian Boulevard waiting for its now-adult owner to deal with it. I think it was among the toys I took to a dealer at an antique mall out by the freeway a year or so after Dad died.

What did intrigue me about the game were the names of the seven horses: Swaps, Needles, Iron Liege, Tim Tam, Tomy Lee, Venetian Way, and Carry Back. Those, I learned after some time playing the game, were the winners of the Kentucky Derby from 1955 through 1961. Earlier versions of the game – and it seems to date back at least to the 1930s – seem to have had only five horses (based on listings at Ebay) and, of course, differing rosters of horses, including Citation, Seabiscuit, Whirlaway, Gallant Fox and likely more.

And I became fascinated for a time with the act of naming thoroughbred horses. The names seemed so odd and random. And since I was also deeply into naming sports teams (and designing their logos) in those days – a hobby I’ve mentioned before – I began compiling a short list of horse names. That list is long gone, and I recall only one of the names: Walter’s Warrior. (Even at 14 or so, I was a major fan of alliteration.)

I still find the breeding and naming of thoroughbreds interesting. I spent some time the other evening digging into the breeding line of this year’s Kentucky Derby favorite, Omaha Beach. (The horse was scratched from the race – and the other two Triple Crown races – yesterday because of a throat ailment.)

And I’m currently reading Christopher McGrath’s book Mr. Darley’s Arabian, which details the long lineage of a horse brought to England from Aleppo (in today’s Syria) in the early 1700s, a horse that McGrath says is the ancestor of nearly every thoroughbred raced today in England, North American and Australia. (Two other Arabians were also in the genetic mix early, but those lines, McGrath says, have nearly faded away.)

Beyond my general curiosity about a wide range of things, I know that one of the things that got me interested in thoroughbred racing, lineage and names was discovering the names of those seven horses in my Kentucky Derby Racing Game years ago. (The saga of Secretariat when I was nineteen did not hurt, either.) I don’t know if newer versions exist of the game (either as a board game or digital doodad), but it’s nice to think that some urchin somewhere will someday open a racing game that features Orb, California Chrome, American Pharoah, Nyquist, Always Dreaming, and Justify along with the winner of tomorrow’s 145th running of the Kentucky Derby.

Keeping to the topic (in terms of the title, at least), here’s Little Richard with “Last Year’s Race Horse (Can’t Run In This Year’s Race).” It was originally intended for the unreleased 1972 album Southern Child and showed up on the 2005 release King of Rock & Roll: Complete Reprise Recordings.

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