LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The starting gate was a cracked driveway. The finish line was a crooked crabapple tree.
The course was three-tenths of a mile past the Moirs', past the Browders', past the nasty doctor's wife and the snarling boxer Geronimo and the place where I once pulled a knife on the neighborhood bully.
The horse was a bike.
The jockey was I.
Every first Saturday in May, I would climb aboard my black Schwinn, dip my nose to the metal bar, and race around my neighborhood flapping an imaginary whip, dreaming about a call.
"And down the stretch they come ... and it's Plaschke aboard the leader ... it's Plaschke bringing him home ... "
Growing up across town from Churchill Downs, I never pretended to make a game-winning basket or hit a game-winning home run.
I pretended to win the Kentucky Derby.
Then I left home, and pretended it didn't exist.
That circular course became a straight line, out of town, through college, to the working world, to the West Coast, far away from a family that cared far too much about two puny minutes.
So what if my great uncle Ed was a jockey.
So what if my uncle Bill once owned a horse, and has published more than four decades worth of mimeographed derby ratings.
So what if my father claimed to have set a record by drinking 15 mint juleps, after which he retired to watch the event from a backyard tree.
For my family, the Derby is not simply a horse race, it's a tradition that dug and twisted underneath us like the roots of that crooked crabapple tree.
We could bend and crack and still we held firm, in our backstretch work ethic and roses ideals, our life personified in that first Saturday in May.
Some would say we were well planted. I thought we were stuck.
The moment I was old enough to realize the ridiculousness of a 150-pound kid impersonating a jockey, I applied that imaginary whip to my life and away I went, sprinting into a world far from the world of my youth.
"You coming home to cover the Derby this year?" my parents would ask, hopefully.
"I have to cover the Lakers and Dodgers," I would say, somberly, but secretly pleased.
For 25 years, this was my declaration of independence.
Then one day last winter, my father fell down some steps. My mother grew weary caring for him. Their needs were evolving. Their lives were changing.
The only one who was stuck, it seemed, was me.
My parents had long since stopped calling to ask whether I was coming home for the race so, one day, after some gentle prodding from a boss who understands these things, I called them.
"I'm, um, covering the Derby this year," I said.
I anticipated sighs. I prepared for aloofness.
After all these years of covering every major sporting event but the one that mattered most to them, I expected attitude.
Instead, I got questions.
"You want us to pick you up at the airport?" said Dad.
"You want us to fix up a room?'' said Mom.
So I'm here, and the name on my press credential is misspelled, and I deserve it.
Bill Plaschge has missed a lot.
The house where mint leaves grew wild around the garage, accounting for my father's record consumption, has long since been sold.
My uncle Bill, who once set a Derby party standard by opening a parimutuel window over the patio, has closed shop.
Also, nobody in our family sneaks through holes in a fence anymore, climbing atop a barn's tar roof and paying for their Derby ticket in second-degree burns.
My people are at the fancy tables now, although not so fancy that I can't hear them now, whooping it up in the Eclipse Room, betting the tax refund and eating hot browns and pounding their elbows as if they were at the kitchen table.
Which, now that I think about it, they were.
The reason the Kentucky Derby has lasted 128 years despite a decline in national horse racing interest is that it's not about the horses.
It's about that kitchen table, shaped like an oval, covered in dirt, 11/4 miles long.
The Derby has been the steady, plain-spoken center of a sports world that has slowly changed around it.
The Masters gets longer. The Indy 500 gets political. The Daytona 500 kills a hero.
Where else but the Derby does the winner simply run faster than anyone else? Where else do the losers offer no excuse?
There is no trash talking when the competitors can't talk. There is no ugliness when the event only lasts two minutes, and is run for a blanket of flowers.
No other event is so basic, so consistent, so eternal, Aristides becoming Cannonade becoming Monarchos.
The Derby that was here when I left town 25 years ago is the same Derby that was waiting for me this week.
Standing under twin spires that lighted up the predawn darkness like a warm gaze Wednesday, I saw the spot where I kissed my first girl, drank my first beer, spit out my first nasty-tasting julep.
It was on Derby Day that I first saw my older brother after a yearlong estrangement, hugging him in the infield because that is what you do in church.
It was on Derby Day that I last saw my grandfather, visiting his small apartment, laying on his old couch in exhaustion, recounting the race.
Granddaddy Willie died several months later, remembering nothing if not the great ride of Genuine Risk.
It was at the Derby that I first cried at a song, you know which song, and that lump has returned whenever I've heard it since, trying to ignore a race that will not ignore me.
When I walked into my house after flying here Tuesday afternoon, walking past the Derby napkins and Derby cups and framed drawing of a Derby finish, my mother was missing.
She was at the track. Betting the fourth race. On a horse named Willie Call.
I'm glad I did.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org