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Down At The Derby: Losers Don't Let Bad Luck Get Them Down

Steve Bera holds court at the trash can.

There, he said, he can find a slice of solace amid the swirl of activity inside the clubhouse at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby day.

At the trash can, Bera will study race sheets with strangers and weigh the odds before making his bets.

"I use the garbage can as my office," he said.

On Saturday, though, his strategy wasn't quite paying off.

The 53-year-old corporate consultant was one of countless others in the red for the day -- on pace to leave the track with less money than they'd brought in.

Each year, thousands of people head to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May for the annual running of the Kentucky Derby. Many spend the day wagering on the horses that run the more than dozen races on the card.

An "abundance" of those people will leave as losers, said John Asher, a spokesman for Churchill Downs.

"But I like to see people win," he said from the winner's circle just after the day's fifth race.

The race was the first of the day under sunshine -- a small win, perhaps, for the hundreds of onlookers pressed against the rail to watch the horses run a mile on the turf at Churchill.

For Joe Rocco Jr., however, the sun made little difference.

He was the last jockey to cross the finish line, riding atop a gray gelding with yellow silks named Long Ago.

Saturday's race was the first of the year for the five-year-old thoroughbred. Rocco said he came out of the gates feeling strong and running fast, but by the second turn he knew he'd soon "run out of horse."

"In the end it's horse racing, not jockey racing," he said.

Horse racing is in Rocco's blood. His father is jockey; his mother a trainer. He's grown up on race tracks and considers Derby day the pinnacle of the industry.

Rocco is honored to ride a horse at Churchill on the first Saturday in May.

"But of course you want to win," he said. "Everybody does."

The same goes for Theresa Connelly.

She sat with a few friends on a bench in the clubhouse, peering at a program and making picks for the next race.

"We just look at the names, we don't read anything else," Connelly said.

In the past, at the tracks near her home in Sommerville, Massachusetts, such strategy has yielded her good results.

But on Saturday, the 78-year-old former court worker was out of luck.

"We're only betting $2 so we can't lose much," she said.

Her husband of some five decades died a few years ago and she'd made the trip to Churchill Downs, her first, on a chartered bus with a group of senior citizens. The drive takes two days -- each way -- and they stay at a hotel not far from the track.

Losing, she said, is just part of life.

"You're going to make mistakes, we all do," she said. "What can I tell you, nothing's perfect."

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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