ERNIE AND ERNESTINA: The Writer, His Wife, and their Afterlife

Book One, Part Two, Chapter 37: Derby Day Confusion

Tomorrow is Derby Day. Ernie always bet the Derby, even though it’s a tricky race to win, so Joshua and I will, too.

I buy a racing form at our usual place and cross the street to study it under a pin oak, in a plot of ground alongside a small airfield. Private planes come and go, some of them trailing advertising banners meant for the crowd at the track. Derby Fever’s in the air, but I don’t want to succumb to it. On purpose, I haven’t read anything about the Derby horses. I want to stay open, to be objective.

Twenty horses are in the Derby field, but it’s easy to eliminate most of them. Take Charge Indy will probably stop. Hansen won’t go the distance. Gemologist is too slow.

I narrow the contenders to six. Then I notice I’ll Have Another, who shows the fastest raw time off his Santa Anita Derby win. Ernie would go for this horse because of his speed. But the horse has drawn an outside post and has a young jockey who’s never raced at Churchill, so I discount him.

Joshua and I confer on the phone. We like the same six horses.

“We’ll box them in an Exacta and a Trifecta,” he says. “If one of our long shots comes in first, second, or third, we’ll get a nice return-on-investment.”

Now it’s the morning of the Derby, and Joshua and I confer again. He brings up four more horses. Of these four, we decide the best one is Dullahan. Should we expand our boxes to include him? Or the other three? A fifty-cent six-horse Trifecta box costs sixty dollars. That’s manageable, when we split the bet. But a fifty-cent seven-horse Trifecta box is . . . two hundred ten dollars. A fifty-cent ten-horse Trifecta box is . . . Jesus, seven hundred twenty dollars.

What would Ernie say? What would he do? But wouldn’t a ten-horse box get it? And pay big? Derby Trifectas always pay big.

Derby afternoon, Joshua and I confer again. He’s driven to Santa Anita for the simulcast. I’m getting more and more nervous; my face begins to sweat. Yesterday under the pin oak, I saw the race so clearly. Now I’m confused, and post time is only half an hour away.

“I’m caving, Joshua.”

“No need to sweat it,” he says. “It’s just a race.”

One of the horses is named Daddy Nose Best. He looks outclassed off his Sunland Derby win, but the name is hard to resist. And we like Union Rags, Creative Cause, and El Padrino. But why like El Padrino? He seems to be regressing. I can’t think straight. Right now, every horse in the race looks like a threat.

“Okay, I’ll tell you what we’ll do,” Joshua says. “We’ll box the top four. If it hits, fine. If it doesn’t, we haven’t lost that much money.”

“Okay.”

Joshua and I stay on the phone as the Derby field breaks from the gate. I’m in the dreaded bedroom, watching the race on the TV I haven’t turned on since my Charlie Rose/Tavis Smiley nights.

Bodiemeister takes the lead, setting a blistering pace.

“He won’t hold it,” Joshua says. “Someone will pass him.”

Someone does — I’ll Have Another, the speedy Santa Anita Derby winner. He sweeps up the outside with his young jockey and easily passes Bodiemeister, who holds on for second, just ahead of Dullahan.

I learn something. The race track is not a good place for a confused person to be.

My writer husband’s favorite nickname for me was Ernestina, so in this 3-book memoir, he is Ernie. This is his story, our story, and my story. I invite you in.