Longtime Kentucky Derby attendee not going this year
By Dan Ruane For Sun-Times Media May 4, 2011 8:44PM
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
When the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby takes place Saturday, the race will be missing one of its most ardent fans for the first time in 59 years.
Former St. Rita football coach Al Stycznyski has been attending the Derby since 1952 and along the way has brought several others with him who continue the tradition he started so long ago. Stycznyski, 80, has decided to hang it up due to health issues.
Two streaks are ending with this Derby. Stycznyski hasn’t missed a Triple Crown race — the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont — in 35 years.
“It hurts not going,” Stycznyski said of the Derby. “It’s not just the traditions and the race. You were in Louisville for a week. People couldn’t understand how I would spend a whole week just for a race, but it was a great time.”
Stycznyski first started attending the Derby at the behest of his boss, Harry Hausman, and for a decade or so kept that tradition going until he started going to the Derby with friends for the entire week preceding the event.
Stycznyski assisted his brother, Bill Stycznyski — and Bill’s successor, Pat Cronin — at their alma mater from 1965 to ’71, and the longest-running group to attend was some of his former players from Rita’s Class of 1970. Members of that group recently got together at Jersey Joe’s tavern in Chicago to recount some of the tales — running the gamut from missed births to beer-drinking fillies — from the previous 40 years.
“I will never forget 1984,” said Jim Fitzer, a native of Chicago’s West Lawn community. “We were up in one of the hotel rooms having a couple of drinks and a maid came around and knocked on the door looking for me. She told me that my wife was in labor. I said ‘Call me back when she has it.’ ”
“Then he suddenly grows a heart and a conscience and he’s trying to find a flight back to Phoenix,” Tony Zolczak, a Mount Greenwood resident, said. “He’s a thousand miles away and he has to catch a flight through Atlanta and then Houston.”
“We get him in the car and take him to the airport and I asked him if everyone was all right,” John Buckley, another West Lawn kid, said. “He said, ‘Yeah they’re all fine.’ I said, ‘What can you do now.’ We headed back to the hotel. He never saw another Derby after that one.”
Zolczak and Buckley, along with good friend John Flaherty, will continue to attend the Derby — and they’ll continue a longstanding Stycznyski tradition by sneaking champagne to their seats.
“If you were new, you had to carry stuff into the track,” Stycznyski said. “We always wore coats and ties and each guy would carry two bottles under his coat. The (idea) of having the champagne was that everybody thought they had the winning ticket before the race and we all had a toast to that.”
One of Stycznyski’s fondest memories came from the Tuesday night trainers dinners he attended every Derby week. One trainer told of giving her horse Budweiser throughout its Kentucky stay.
“The horse would not drink water from any other place than its home stable,” Stycznyski said. “So they gave the horse Budweiser for the entire week.”
Churchill Downs has made a collector’s glass for each Derby since 1938. The items have become quite valuable over the years and Zolczak has all but the 1938 through ’40 glasses.
“During ’41 through ’45, the war years, they made them out of plastic and one year it was totally blank with an emblem on the bottom,” Zolczak said. “There are only six known complete sets in the country, and that includes the glasses with mistakes on them.”
“The Derby was a big deal back (in 1952),” Stycznyski said. “It’s the same as it is now. It’s a joyful event.”