Seminary, The Kentucky Derby and the Wisdom of Woodchopper


In the spring of 1981 I was used to the question.  It would come as I walked across the campus of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. It had been asked many times.

“So why did you come here?”

It was a rational question.  I was from North Carolina.  I had gone to Wake Forest University.  Why not go to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC?  It seemed the logical thing to do.

They would ask, expecting an answer about the legacy of scholarship, the quality of the faculty, the heritage of theological education.  And all of that was a part, but not THE reason.

“Why did you come to Southern Seminary?”

I always gave the same answer.  I always gave the truthful answer.  “I came for the Kentucky Derby!”

Derby glass.jpg

I love the Kentucky Derby!  I love Derby Week and all the festivities.  Love the pageantry, the women in their hats, the Mint Juleps (“a great waste of good bourbon,” as they say!)  I love it all, but I really love the race! I still get goosebumps when the trumpets play the call to the post, and cry when we sing “My Old Kentucky Home.”

And while we are at confession, yes, I love to bet!  Where else can you “buy” a horse for $2.00.  You study the Daily Racing Form, you look at the horse, you check your gut and then walk up to the window and put your money down!  And for the next 2 minutes you own a million dollar horse!

That is why I went to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary!  Not the holiest of reasons, but the truth!  And when the first Saturday of May rolled around, I found myself in the infield of Churchill Downs.  

(Side note, I have also been in the infield of the Darlington International Raceway and will tell you that the Darlington infield crowd is a higher species of human!  But that is another story!)

This is a winning ticket. Not the one I had!

This is a winning ticket. Not the one I had!

It was a wonderful day at the track.  Well, at least I was having fun.  But as far as the wagering was going, not so good!  But it was OK.  The Derby was coming up and I knew my horse!  I decided that I was going to go big to make up for the bad day.  I put my money on Woodchoper.  And for good reason!  Eddie Delahoussaye was in the saddle.  He was having a pretty good day.  And besides, when, WHEN Woodchopper came in I would make up my losses and then some! And as they came down the stretch, it looked great!  Woodchopper was making a strong run…and if the Derby were a quarter mile longer he would have won. I would have been rich!

But instead, Pleasant Colony won the blanket of roses.  

Had Woodchopper won I would have taken home over $150 that day!  Instead, I lost 75% of all money I had in the world.  Granted, it was only $85, but it was 75% of all my money.

It was a very expensive, but valuable lesson.

I learned never to bet what I wasn’t willing to lose.  I still went to the track a couple times a year, but I always took about $25 in cash.  No credit card, no ATM card.  Just what I was willing to lose.

I have thought about that this week for a couple reasons.  It is Derby Week!  Saturday 20 horses will make the Run for the Roses carrying the hopes and bets of thousands of people.  I will be watching.

But the other reason is that this week I learned about another friend who lost his job because of an inappropriate relationship.  He isn’t the first, and I dare say he won’t be the last.  But as I have grieved, I have also wondered, “Why did he bet his life?”  He has lost his job, his family is in peril, his career is in jeopardy.  


It has always been a question for me.  It is a personal question. Monogamy was not my father’s strong suit.  That trait seems to run in our family.  It has been my greatest fear, that i might lose my family! In my mind and in my theology, an affair isn’t the worst thing. To me it doesn’t come close to selling your soul, which I have watched other do with far less outward consequences. But it still bothers me. I really wonder why?

What makes a person risk everything like that?  I don’t think there is one answer.  The causes are myriad, but every time I hear of this my heartbreaks.  I ask the question.  And remind myself  that “There but for the grace of God, and Woodchopper, go I.”

Saturday afternoon 20 horses will line up in the starting gate. The world will await the cry, “And they’re off!” And yes, I will place a bet—a quarter in our family pool. In case you are wondering, I’m picking Omaha Beach. Mike Smith is a great jockey! But remember, I picked Woodchopper too! So be warned!

Don’t bet what you aren’t willing to lose!

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