Monday, April 30, 2001

Racing is in his blood

NKU professor is historian and handicapper

By Ray Schaefer
Enquirer Contributor

        PARK HILLS — A sure way to lose a bet this week is to challenge Jim Claypool to a test of Kentucky Derby knowledge.

        Mr. Claypool, 62, is a Northern Kentucky University history professor. He's also the closest thing the Tristate has to a horse racing historian — he's been to some 20 Derbies, written The Tradition Continues The Story of Old Latonia, Latonia and Turfway Race Tracks, and edited sports stories for the Kentucky Encyclopedia.

        He has collected hundreds of horse racing programs, saddlecloths and other memorabilia, and turned his Park Hills home into a thoroughbred shrine.

        He calls riding a thoroughbred one of the most dangerous jobs of all.

        “You've got young men and women weighing not much more than 100 pounds riding an animal weighing 1,000 pounds on four feeble legs that could break any minute,” Mr. Claypool says. “Jockeys are the bravest athletes of all.”

        Mr. Claypool's friends like him for his low-key attitude and respect him for his knowledge of horses.

        “Obviously he's a very intelligent guy,” said Steve Cauthen, who won the Triple Crown in 1978 aboard Af firmed. “He loves racing. He probably knows more about my career than I do.”

Getting started
               Mr. Claypool has loved horses and writing for as long as he can remember. His father, James, was a journalist in the '40s, and young Jim would accompany his dad to what is now Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky., and listen to the Derby on the radio.

        The youngster won his first wager as a 6-year-old, picking Navy Boy to win a race at Dade Park, as Ellis Park was known in 1944.

        “My dad made a bet for me,” Mr. Claypool recalls. “It paid $12.80. I put it in my piggy bank.”

        Mr. Claypool eventually moved to Fort Mitchell, graduated from Beechwood High School in 1956, then earned a degree from Centre College in Danville four years later. One of his jobs was raking dirt at Latonia — which came with a lesson about what he would not be doing for a living.

        “They had tractors, but they didn't give me one,” Mr. Claypool says. “That lasted three or four weeks.”

A wide collection
               But that brush with racing's dirty work didn't dampen Mr. Claypool's love of things equine.

        His collection spans the globe, from programs from races in Dubai to a saddlecloth from the Stakes at Turfway.

        When you've been around horses that long, you're bound to have a few strong opinions:

        • Best horse? Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner. Mr. Claypool and a friend stood at the head of the stretch at the 1973 Derby; the friend had $800 riding on Sham, while Mr. Claypool put $50 down on Secretariat.

        “(Secretariat) passes Sham in the homestretch, and my friend starts leaning over the rail and falls onto the track,” Mr. Claypool says. “...I only made a little money. The tickets are worth a lot more.”

        • Best jockey of all time? Mr. Claypool names five: Eddie Arcaro; Mr. Cauthen; Isaac Murphy, one of an early group of African-American riders who won 44 percent of his races in the late 19th century; Willie Shoemaker; and Pat Day.

        Mr. Day's most recent Northern Kentucky outing was an outstanding day of racing at Turfway Park's Spiral Stakes Day, winning several races on the early card and riding the favorite in the Spiral Stakes itself.

        Mr. Claypool said jockeys display different temperaments just as their mounts do.

        “Eddie was anything but a gentleman; he'd do anything to win,” Mr. Claypool says. “Steve would do anything within the rules to win. He's the consummate Kentucky gentleman and family man.”

        • The highest rising star? Mr. Claypool likes Kris Prather, who set national records for wins this spring at Turfway but is now recovering from leg injuries in Montana.

        “She's extremely hard-working and talented,” Mr. Claypool says. “She may be the next Julie Krone.”

        Mr. Claypool will be in Louisville on Saturday, and he picks Point Given to win the 127th Derby. He also has some advice that works anywhere.

        “Find out what you do well,” he says. “And do it as much as you can.”


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