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    Location and luck. Those are my keepsakes from a lunch at Cardinal Hall of Fame Cafe. The food holds no plot twists; it is a sports bar, complete with a long hallway of glass-encased U of L athletics memorabilia and televisions as far as the eye can see. (Each booth in the bar area has a TV at the table.) I’d advise against salads or salmon and steer toward fried goodness and sandwiches. (The pulled pork has those crunchy fried onion things, which is, actually, sort of a plot twist. Unexpected and appreciated little shrapnel tucked in the sloppy, sweet meat.)

    About a mile and a quarter — Derby distance — from Churchill Downs, Cardinal Cafe attracts trainers, jockeys and horse owners regularly. “A lot of them stay at nearby hotels,” general manager Ron Harris says. Harris has spotted trainer Bob Baffert’s regal white mane tilted down as he looks over a menu. Retired jockey Pat Day likes to lunch here too. But to share the most legendary Derby tale, Harris grabs kitchen manager Otis Gerron.

    It’s 2009, Gerron begins, the day before Derby. Two wild-west types saunter in — both topped with cowboy hats, one on crutches from a motorcycle accident. The cowboys, they start drinking, as these two are wont to do. They start bragging. A proclamation: “My horse, he’s gonna win the Derby!” Gerron is skeptical. These guys just rode up from New Mexico or Texas or someplace dusty and far away in a pickup towing their horse — Mine That Bird — behind them. And the horse’s Derby odds? 50 to 1. But the cowboys don’t relent. A crescendo of confidence fills the restaurant. They urge waiters and anyone who will listen to bet on their horse. “I was like, yeah, it’s just the drinks talking,” Gerron recalls.

    But, oh, the temptation of a longshot. So Gerron phones his wife, tells her Calvin Borel is set to ride Mine That Bird. She greenlights a bet: $20 to win, $20 to place. “My wife always bets on Calvin Borel,” Gerron says. A waitress serving the cowboys is convinced too. She puts all her day’s tips — $100 — on the horse: $50 to win, $50 to place. The rest, of course, is Derby legend. A most historic upset makes for the happiest of Cardinal Cafe waitstaff. The waitress pockets about $5,000, Gerron a little less.

    A few hours after the Derby, the cowboys — Mine That Bird co-owner Mark Allen and trainer Chip Woolley — call the restaurant and instruct them to stay open late because their whole entourage is headed that way. It’s time to party. Woolley hobbles in on his crutches. “I told you! I told you!” Gerron recalls him exclaiming. Allen is among the crowd that drains bottle after bottle of bourbon. Steaks are sizzled and served. The cowboys leave a healthy tip for the same waitress who bet on Mine That Bird. 

    “They were nice cowboys,” Gerron says.

    This originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

    Photos courtesy of Louisville Magazine

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