Sunday, April 20, 2008

Party Central . . .

Yep. “Party Central.” That’s the best way to describe downtown Louisville as the first Saturday in May approaches.

There are over seventy Kentucky Derby Festival events, beginning with the spectacular Thunder Over Louisville (North America’s largest, annual pyrotechnic show). Other events include the Pegasus Parade and some wacky events like the Run for the Rose’ in which servers from area restaurants race around an obstacle course balancing glasses of wine. And these events, along with the actual horse racing, draw over 1.5 million visitors to Louisville.

In TRIPLE CROSS, I was putting Steve in the middle of all this, so I had to check out the party scene myself, for accuracy’s sake, of course. One of my favorite Derby Festival events is the air show and Thunder, the official start of the whirlwind Derby party.

Fairly early in the book, Steve is invited to a Thunder Party by Rudi Sturgill, a wealthy young man who has a runner in the Derby. After the fireworks wind down, Rudi decides to move the party to 4th Street Live! Louisville’s entertainment district. They settle on Sully’s Saloon, and this is where Steve gets his first hint that events have gone horribly sideways.

4th Street Live's pumpkin-colored, steel lattice supports a glass roof that covers an entire city block.

Colorful lighting and an elevator's exposed gears are some of 4th Street's unique touches.

Only in Louisville: Portable commercials in Sully's Saloon! If you can't tell from the photo, that's a laptop screen suspended above the guy's head. He wore a powerpack around his waist.

Later, in TRIPLE CROSS, Steve takes a friend to Maker’s Mark Bourbon House and Lounge. I just loved this restaurant. Very trendy.

Maker's Mark Bourbon House and Lounge's fabulous 58' bar.

Red-tiled pillars, sheer curtain walls, honey-colored floor.

During my research forays, I was frequently struck by the dissonance between the late night party scene and the early morning work taking place in the barns at Churchill Downs. The men and women who care for and worry over the horses’ health and wellbeing, well, their lifestyle and routine and focus is so far removed from the partying and the money funneling into the town, I couldn’t not think about them.

In any case, I enjoyed my time in Louisville. The party atmosphere was overwhelming and seemed to permeate every aspect of my visit, and I loved discovering the fancy restaurants and party spots, but one of the side benefits of writing is learning about unusual, unexpected places. Once of those places is Wagner’s Pharmacy.

The grill at Wagner's Pharmacy.

I first heard about Wagner’s from an adorable, elderly woman whose husband had been a racehorse trainer. I met her at a book launch for DERBY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, a collection of short mystery fiction revolving around the Kentucky Derby. At the time, I had no idea that I’d ever write a Derby book, but she was so enthused, I couldn’t help but remember her recommendation. And, I’d been curious. What could a pharmacy have to do with horse racing? She’d told me that backstretch workers and racehorse owners hung out there. I had to admit, I was intrigued.

Then I visited Wagner’s. The place is amazing.

Every inch of wall space is covered with racing memorabilia.

Directly across from where I sat at the counter hung a photograph of Secritariat, and I have no doubt that it was carried across the street some thirty years earlier.

If you're ever in Louisville, and if you love horses, don't miss Wagner's. It's located on 4th Street, right across from Churchill's Gate 5. And the food's great, too.

Of course, Wagner's is mentioned throughout TRIPLE CROSS because any backside worker with a pulse would have eaten there. So, here's an excerpt featuring a scene set in this amazing landmark. Steve's trying to avoid the police when he slips inside.

Wagner’s Pharmacy was a misnomer, really, because it was part cafĂ©, part sundries, part liquor store, and one-hundred percent unique. The glass door eased shut behind me, efficiently dampening the street noise while jumbled voices and the sounds and aromas of sizzling food flooded my senses. I’d been inside once before, and I swear, the place was straight out of a forties movie. I looked for an empty seat. Booths lined the wall on my left. Tables and chairs filled the center of the room. A Formica counter stretched down the right-hand wall where customers sat on barstools upholstered with pumpkin-colored vinyl and watched the cook fry up their eggs. I stepped down the sloped floor and slid onto an empty stool at the end of the counter, planted my boots on the runner.

Wooden plaques hung above the grill and featured seriously dated paintings of eggs and bacon, coffee and toast. The damn things had to have been tacked up there before my mother was born.

First impressions are often flawed by preconceived, erroneous notions, and my initial look inside Wagner’s had taken me by surprise. The establishment that so many people talked about and patronized, backsiders and the wealthy alike, was a dump. But it had an irresistible charm, mainly because it could not have existed anywhere else in the world. Everywhere you looked, on every square inch of wall space, hung period photographs of horses and jockeys and the men and women who owned and trained them. Directly across from where I sat hung an eight-by-ten glossy of Secretariat after he won the Kentucky Derby in unbelievable fashion on May 5th, 1973, and I had no doubt it was an original that had been carried across the street and had decorated that space for thirty years.

Pure and simple, Wagner’s was a walk backward through time. And the food was damn good, too.

I ordered bacon and eggs and biscuits and gravy and was halfway through my meal when my cell rang. I wiped my fingers on a napkin and flipped the phone open. “Cline.”

“Coast is clear.”

I smiled. “Who’d they talk to?”

“Mr. K,” Jay said, referring to Kessler. “Bill Gannon and his employees, couple Hispanic stable hands, me, the guy Kessler was talking to.”

“Know who he is?”

“From what I heard, guy’s an owner. Maybe a potential client.”

“Did the cops interview with the press around?”

“Used an office. Even so, the reporters were buzzin’ round like flies on shit.”

“Apt description, there, Jay.”

He grunted. “Get your ass back here, and bring me something to eat.”

I closed my phone and was scraping the last bit of egg and biscuits and gravy into the center of my plate when someone stepped alongside my shoulder and placed a hand on the countertop. A small, feminine hand. I turned my head.

Detective Bonikowski stood at my side in her fashionable suit--this morning’s choice, a charcoal gray herringbone--paired with a pink silk blouse with the buttons left undone at her throat.


“Mr. Cline.” She swept the room with a practiced glance before her gaze returned to my face. “What are you doing here?”

“Taking a break.” I gestured toward my plate. “Eating.”

“You take breaks in the middle of walking a horse?”

I smiled. “Not usually.”

“Did you think we were coming to hook you up?”

“It crossed my mind.”

“And now?”

I glanced at her and sighed. “No. Your shoulders are relaxed. Your hands are nowhere near your weapon or cuffs, you’re unbalanced with most of your weight on your left foot . . . and you’re alone.”

Her mouth twitched. “I wouldn’t need backup to handle you.”

I swiveled around on my stool and squinted at her, wondering if the implied meaning was simply a case of wishful thinking on my part. “How’d you find me?”

“Driving past. Looked in the window . . . you know? Advanced police work.”

I grinned.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Genesis of a Kentucky Derby Book . . .

After I finished writing the third book in the Steve Cline Mystery Series, COLD BURN, which is set on a thoroughbred breeding farm in Warrenton, Virginia, and the manuscript went off to the typesetters, it was time for me to come up with a story idea for the next book in the series. I have to admit, a novel set at the Kentucky Derby was not my first choice.

After wrapping up COLD BURN, I spent three months plotting and researching the fourth book, only to have it rejected on synopsis. So, I had to come up with something, and fast, especially if I wanted to maintain a book-a-year schedule. A schedule I’ve since demolished, I might add.

Anyway, while casting around for a story idea, I considered all the people in Steve’s life, and my focus settled on his father, racehorse trainer Chris Kessler. I decided that Kessler finally had a horse capable enough and talented enough to run in the Kentucky Derby. I pitched the idea to my editor. She loved it, so Steve and I were off to Churchill Downs!

View from the Backside

The Backside

After getting permission from the powers that be at the storied track, I set about researching Louisville and the Derby Festival Events and the backside of Churchill Downs.

Riverfront Plaza

A Gallopalooza Horse on Main Street

I came up with the “horse mystery” quickly, but it didn’t feel substantial enough to carry an entire novel; plus, I generally like to layer a second mystery into the story when possible, anyway, so I came up with another mystery that would complicate the plot in a big way. I started my research online, amassing hundreds of pages of detailed notes that would later filter into the story itself. Then, it was time to visit Louisville and Churchill for onsite research.

Morning workout

Afternoon sun winking off Humana Building

Meanwhile, I had to think of a way to get Steve involved in the mystery I’d designed for him, and it had to be believable. So, I turned to real life. I had taken a Private Investigations course a while back, and one of the topics that we studied dealt with the Public Information Act. Essentially, we learned about the amazing amount of information that is available to the public. And we were given a final assignment: to learn everything that we could about a person unknown to us. Our instructor’s parting words were: “Whatever you do, don’t follow your subject.”

He didn’t want to be called by the police when we screwed up.

Well, those words have stuck with me over the years. I had it in the back of my mind that I could use his sentiment somewhere down the line in a story. So, I decided that Steve would take the same PI course. (He loves working with horses, but he’s interested in investigations, as well.) Steve’s course is wrapping up just as he heads to Louisville. While there, he decides to complete the assignment so he can turn it in when he returns to Maryland.

Unfortunately for Steve, the person he chooses to investigate winds up missing under mysterious circumstances, and the race is on . . .

TRIPLE CROSS: A sinister plot of deceit and revenge unravels beneath the famed Twin Spires of Churchill Downs.

Here’s the opening to TRIPLE CROSS:

The assignment was simple enough. Pick a random subject and learn as much as you can about him. Name, address, phone number. DOB, mortgages and property taxes. Car description and plate number. VIN if you didn’t mind being obvious. A simple assignment if I’d been in Maryland. But I was six-hundred miles from home, standing within eyeshot of the famed Twin Spires of Churchill Downs. Logistics would be complicated, but nothing I couldn’t overcome.

First and foremost, I needed to select a subject. But on the backside, with all the “Slims” and “Ricos” and “Willies,” figuring out someone’s real name was a tricky proposition at best. Track employees were supposed to keep their photo IDs displayed at all times, either dangling from straps around their necks or clipped to their shirts, but most backsiders found the practice cumbersome and ended up slipping them under T-shirts or stuffing them in back pockets. And whomever I chose needed to have at least a tenuous tie to the community. On the backside, that could be a problem, too. Of course, I could have picked a jockey or a trainer or a local celebrity, but I wanted someone who wasn’t in the news. Someone ordinary. Normal.

Yet I suspected there was nothing ordinary or normal about this place or time. Not in the town of Louisville, and certainly not in the barn area at Churchill Downs. Not fifteen days before the running of the Kentucky Derby.

Even before the sky had brightened, and the lights illuminating the Twin Spires lost their brilliance to the new day, traffic on Fourth Street had increased until the whine of tires on asphalt pushed through the chain-link fence that separated the backside from the rest of the world.

Today, it seemed like that fence wasn’t doing any damned good.

Also, don’t forget the Kentucky Derby documentary that I mentioned in an earlier post. If you’re interested in viewing it, and it’s playing near you, please try to catch it early because twenty-five percent of the box office from the opening week will be donated to the worldwide leader in equine research – The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation. If you can, please support the film the week of April 18th. To learn more, visit:

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The First Saturday in May . . .

I spent the afternoon in Louisville today. The magnolias, daffodils, and tulips were in bloom, and naturally, my thoughts turned to the Kentucky Derby. As hard as it is for me to believe, the big race is only twenty-five days and counting.

Time flies.

Statue of Aristides, winner of the first Kentucky Derby.

Considering the fact that my latest mystery, TRIPLE CROSS, is set in Louisville for the running of the Kentucky Derby, you’d think that I’d be a huge horseracing fan when, in fact, I’m not.

I am most definitely drawn to racing, but this is solely a byproduct of my love of the horse, and I have to admit, after Barbaro, my feelings about horseracing are even more conflicted.

Racing is hard on horses, but so are all the equine sports at the upper levels. Let’s face it; as soon as humans are thrown into the mix, our natural competitiveness (and sometimes, greed) causes us to push our horses. So, it’s up to us to do the best job we can to ensure their safety and continued health.

Some will be critical of how we “use” horses, but the truth of the matter is: many of the top equine athletes love what they do.

What happened to Barbaro was tragic, and it broke my heart. But it was an accident. I have admired Barbaro’s trainer, Michael Matz, for decades, having become familiar with him as he competed on the Grand Prix circuit, rode in the Olympics, and later, saved several children when Flight 232 went down in an Iowa cornfield. He is a horseman in the truest sense of the word.

If you haven’t heard about it yet, THE FIRST SATURDAY IN MAY, an independent documentary about the 2006 Kentucky Derby, filmed and produced by two brothers, will be released nationwide later this month, on April 18th. Here’s a clip from the movie:

Banner 2 Banner 1 go!

To learn more about THE FIRST SATURDAY IN MAY, visit:

I found this wonderful clip on YouTube (from the movie) of Michael Matz introducing Barbaro to his son. It's very sweet and really highlights Matz's temperament and horsemanship. Click here.

So, while I'm not a big racing fan, this excerpt from TRIPLE CROSS, sums up how I (and Steve) feel about racehorses:

There’s something about being on the backside of a racetrack just before dawn that is truly magical--standing along the rail when the light’s just coming up, watching the horses move fluidly across the damp earth, their dark shapes silhouetted against a rainbow sky. You stand there, breathing in the clean air, listening to the steady primal rhythm of a galloping horse, and the rest of the world simply does not exist.