Why is it that only judges seem to win the Kentucky Derby pool organized each year at the 17th District Bar Association’s annual meeting on the first Saturday in May?
Participants in the pool each contribute a dollar and then pick a number out of a hat. The individual who picks the number of the horse that wins gets the money in the pool.
Fairmont attorney Jim Wilson, a longtime bar member in the southern Minnesota district, wants to know if some horseplay is at the heart of the judges’ winning streak. So does Patrick Costello of Lakefield, who just happens to be the 2004-05 president of the district bar association in question.
The two naysayers are now ready to come forward with their long-held concerns.
“I’ve done this for 26 years, and I’ve never won,” says Costello. “Frankly, it’s usually one of the judges.”
Wilson, who has also ponied up for years, echoed Costello. “I’ve never won — never!” Wilson said. “And I’ve been suspicious, because a few of our local judges used to run the pool and I believe they won more frequently than anyone else.”
Wilson bravely identified one of those local judges as retired 17th District Court Judge Bill Schindler.
When contacted, Schindler denied the implication.
“I don’t think I’ve ever won, either,” Schindler said. Furthermore, “those lawyers who are saying that ought to be brought before some panel,” the judge added. Then he laughed.
In the interests of complete accuracy, it should be revealed that both Wilson and Costello also laughed when unburdening themselves of their “suspicions”.
Every year for many years now, the bar association district that covers Faribault, Martin and Jackson counties has centered its annual gathering around the Derby — or, as it’s often described — “the most exciting two minutes in sports.”
It all started back in the early 1950s, when well-known local trial lawyer Leo Seifert started the tradition because, well, because Seifert loved horses and loved the spotlight.
“Leo was a bombastic trial lawyer, and quite a horseman,” said Newt Johnson, who joined Seifert’s previously one-man firm in 1949. “He owned a farm west of town, where he raised some show horses.”
In fact, for the first handful of years, Seifert (who died in 1972) hosted the annual gathering in his offices in Fairmont.
“We’d have some ice and some mix and some liquor — a little scotch and a little Kentucky Bourbon,” Johnson said. “My role always was to make sure I got the ice into our office on time.”
At first, of course, this being the early 1950s, the lawyers would gather around a radio to listen to the race. Soon, though, Seifert, ever the showman, upped the ante.
“Leo arranged with the local appliance store to set up a TV in our office, just for the Derby,” Johnson said. “The reception wasn’t very good, but it was fun.”
By the late ‘50s — after a rival law firm complained about Seifert holding the meeting in his offices — the gathering moved to the Interlaken Golf Club, where it’s still held today.
That’s where the actual betting began. And that upped the ante even more.
“Everyone was very enthusiastic about watching the race,” said retired attorney Dick Berens, who used to be a mainstay at the meetings.
“There was always a lot of cheering as the horses fought for the lead,” Berens said. “It probably created a little disturbance for the other more staid golfers at the club.”
Yes, Berens once won the pool. “But I don’t have a clue what the horse’s name was.”
The 17th District Bar Association counts 30-35 area lawyers as members, and maybe 15 or 20 will be around to watch the Derby and throw a buck into the hat, according to Costello. It’s not quite as big a deal as it used to be.
“The truth is, we used to start at noon or 1 p.m. and wouldn’t end until midnight or 1 a.m.,” Costello said. “But things have changed. These days when supper’s over, a lot of people are getting ready to leave, and the sun’s not even down yet.”
Costello attributed this to the undeniable “graying” of the bar association’s members.
But Fairmont attorney Dave Frundt, who is 33, said he enjoys the tradition and plans to keep it going. No, he’s never won, but he plans to.
“I’m saving my win for the year we hold the meeting at the Kentucky Derby.”
And he may indeed one day win — as long as no judges show up, that is.