Josh Shaffer

Lucky father-daughter team off to Kentucky Derby for first time

Don Carrington and his daughter Sue have been avid horse racing fans since the 1970s, and they regularly bet the Kentucky Derby together. This week, they and 30 friends will travel to the race in Louisville, Ky., for the first time -- a trip financed by last year’s Belmont Stakes winnings.
Don Carrington and his daughter Sue have been avid horse racing fans since the 1970s, and they regularly bet the Kentucky Derby together. This week, they and 30 friends will travel to the race in Louisville, Ky., for the first time -- a trip financed by last year’s Belmont Stakes winnings. Courtesy of Sue Carrington

For a father-daughter bonding experience, Don and Sue Carrington have long preferred the grace and mania of thoroughbred horse racing, sharing hunches, wagers, white knuckles and jackpots.

Most of the time, they bet the Exacta, boxed, picking the No. 2 and No. 5 horses to finish first and second – a system they based on Don’s 1925 birthday.

But in three decades of playing the ponies, they’d never made a pilgrimage to the cathedral of horse tracks, never donned a seersucker blazer or a feathered hat, never sipped a glass of Woodford Reserve when the longshot hit and switched to Early Times when it ran out of the money. They’d never seen the Kentucky Derby.

But on Thursday morning, the pair will board a bus to Louisville along with 30 friends – a journey that marks Don’s 90th birthday and Sue’s 60th, financed almost entirely by last year’s $16,000 winnings from the Belmont Stakes.

For the occasion, Don bought two days worth of Derby-appropriate garb from Kohl’s, aided by a native Kentuckian sales clerk.

“Here’s my pink shirt,” he said, showing me the whole garish array. “Here’s my white slacks. Here’s my sport coat. Here’s my two hats.”

The coat, he noted, is seersucker – though slightly flawed.

“They put a lining in it! And the pockets don’t open.”

Neither Don nor Sue has any personal tie to racing: no riding lessons, no jockeys or large-animal veterinarians in the family.

Don grew up in Philadelphia, flew as a bombardier on a B-29, spent his career with working for the telephone company, then the U.S. Senate, and moved to Raleigh around the time his wife died. Sue reports that he stubbornly declines to wear a hearing aid or use a computer.

Sue started out as a radio newscaster and now runs a communications company in Virginia. Don tells the story of driving her to her first news job in Grand Island, Neb., and leaving her there in that flat and friendless plain, full of a parent’s remorse.

But Sue found a new friend in Fonner Park, the track that ran races behind her apartment. She haunted the place after work, and she coaxed her dad into the obsession. Soon, they became Exacta buddies, sometimes at the track but mostly over the phone.

They hit it big last year when Don just didn’t like California Chrome to win the Belmont Stakes, which would have scored the horse a Triple Crown. He urged Sue to bet triples using every combination except that horse, and when California Chrome ran fourth, they collected big.

“Think of it as a kind of church,” Sue said. “Where else can you put money in the offering plate and get money back?”

I will segue here to explain that I have a deep connection to the Kentucky Derby, and it has nothing to do with horses. In 1999, when I decided to ask my spouse Amber to marry me, a newspaper pal and Kentucky native suggested I buy the ring at his brother-in-law’s shop in Louisville.

The idea grew larger until we decided on a five-reporter road trip to the Derby, which would serve as a distraction to the ring purchase. But once I hit town and waded across the rivers of mint julep running knee-deep through the streets, the Derby mythology wrapped around my neck and squeezed.

I proposed to Amber in the middle of the infield at Churchill Downs. People I trusted assured me that this was such an epic gesture that all Louisville would swoon at my feet, giving me a diamond ring for free and putting my picture on the front page of The Courier-Journal.

None of that happened. If you know anything about the Derby, you’ll know about the naked and mud-smeared masses who inhabit the infield. Somehow, I emerged from that melee a married man. Ask Amber about it sometime, particularly the girl with the ham sandwich and the man with the $20 pup tent. I can’t discuss them here.

But all of that aside, I wish Don and Sue Carrington a most special day in the grandstands, which offer a far more refined experience, one fit to celebrate a father-daughter bond that stretches back more than 30 years. I hope their horses win. I hope the No. 2s and No. 5s run first and second. I hope luck acts the lady.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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