Billy Reed: Arkansas memories inform Arkansas Derby picks

Billy Reed: Arkansas memories inform Arkansas Derby picks
Billy Reed

?LOUISVILLE (WAVE) – Every time I think about The Arkansas Derby, which will be run Saturday afternoon at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, I think about Virginia Kelley, the mother of former President Bill Clinton.

?After Clinton was elected in 1992, the news came out that his mother was a lifelong race-tracker. While raising Bill and his brother as a single mom, she often slipped off to Oaklawn with her buddies to bet the races and have some fun.

?So when it was announced that she and her husband Bill Kelley would attend the 1993 Derby as guests of Gov. Brereton Jones, I convinced my bosses at Sports Illustrated to send me to Oaklawn Park to interview her.

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?The logistics turned out to be an ordeal. I had to go through the White House press office, which asked a lot of questions about why I wanted to do this and how much time I would need. We finally agreed that I would get 10 minutes with Mrs. Kelly between races at Oaklawn.

?At the appointed time, I was taken to the box where Mrs. Kelley and a friend were sharing show bets, just as they had for 40 years. I recognized her immediately because of her trademark black-dyed hair with a silver streak in the middle.

I was ready to introduce myself, when my path was blocked by an officious young lady from the White House carrying a sheaf of important-looking paper who reminded me that I would get 10 minutes, not a second more.

?When I finally met Mrs. Kelley, we hit it off immediately, because we spoke the language of the race track. She asked me as many questions about Louisville and the Derby as I asked her about her love of thoroughbred racing.

Exactly 10 minutes into our conversation, the officious young lady arrived to shoo me off. But Mrs. Kelley, bless her heart, told the young lady that we needed more time. (I admit to smiling a snarky smile at the gatekeeper before she huffed off.

?I learned that she rarely bet more than $2 across the board, once picked nine winners in nine races at Oaklawn for total winnings of $700 and could never turn her son Bill into a racetrack because he lost $4 of his hard-earned money on his first bet.

?When I finally had to leave after a half-hour or so, we exchanged phone numbers so she could call me about the Derby weather, things to do and see, etc., and, indeed, I received two phone calls in the next few weeks from the mother of the President of the United States.

?She finally decided to bet on Prairie Bayou despite the fact that his owner, Arkansas lumberman John Ed Anthony, had opposed Bill in one of his races for governor. When I asked her about that, she said, "Well, Bill has made a lot of enemies, but Anthony and I are fine."

?Well, Prairie Bayou finished second to Sea Hero, meaning that Mrs. Kelley got some money back if she bet across the board. Then the Anthony horse won the Preakness, although Mrs. Kelley wasn't there to see it.

?Looking back, I'd have to say that Bill Clinton's wife and mother was about as different as two women could be. About all they shared was their love for the President and their personal strength. His mother had a much harder life than Hillary. I wonder how they got along.

I never talked to Mrs. Kelly again because she died, suddenly, in January of 1994, less than a year after her trip to the Derby. The cause of death was listed as breast cancer. She was 70.

?So now I'm hoping that maybe her spirit will send me some vibes about the Arkansas Derby.

?She guarded her money and tended to be a chalk player so she might lean toward the favored Magnum Moon, trained by Todd Pletcher. However, he's 8-to-5 in the morning line, so she also might go for a slightly larger price, such as 2-to-1 second choice Solomini or 9-to-1 third pick Quip, who scratched out of the Blue Grass Stakes to run in the Arkansas Derby.

?But when you consider Bill Clinton's amazing rise from Hope, Ark., to the White House – the American Dream realized by Abraham Lincoln before him and Barack Obama afterward – she would surely have to bet $2 on Dream Baby Dream, a 15-to-1 shot.

?So in honor of Mrs. Kelley, I think I'll bet a $2 exacta box with Magnum Moon, Quip and Dream Baby Dream. She was a beautiful lady, in her own unique way, and I'll always be happy that our paths crossed at Oaklawn Park.

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