Charlie Hoskins was a self-made man. He had been born into poverty in the Appalachian Mountains near where Jenny Wiley had been taken captive by the Indians in the eighteenth century. In fact, he was a descendant of hers.
Born poor as a church mouse, Charlie pursued his education with relentless single-mindedness, and once he received his BA from Murray State University, he pursued the accumulation of wealth with the same determination. He was relentless in his pursuit of money, to such an extent he was universally hated.
Oh, he was admired for his rags-to-riches story. He was admired for being a good businessman, but Charlie never learned tact and made many enemies in the process of realizing his goals. He didn’t care that in order to accomplish his dreams, he trampled on those of others.
The reason most of us in the Bluegrass didn’t care for larger-than-life Charlie Hoskins was that he was a major developer in the area. Charlie seemed bent on buying every horse farm he could get his hands on and paving it over with concrete for another of his strip malls and housing developments. Many of his storefronts lay empty and barren, but that didn’t seem to deter Charlie from building. He kept on and on, destroying some of the most precious farmland in the country in order to put up a parking lot.
Remind you of Joni Mitchell? If you don’t know to which song I am referring, then you are not a child of the sixties or good protest music.
Charlie didn’t care what people thought of him. Folks hadn’t helped his family when they were down and out in the mountains, so he didn’t care for their goodwill now.
But what Charlie did care about was that his Thoroughbred, Persian Blue, win the Kentucky Derby.
And next he cared about making a grand entrance in his hot air balloon on live television. He was going to land his balloon right in the infield.
Charlie didn’t seem to mind that Churchill Downs would forbid it. He hadn’t asked them. He would just pay whatever fine he received and beg for forgiveness after he gave Churchill Downs a large donation following his reckless stunt.
Yes, Charlie had determined he was going to be a household name, no matter whom he rubbed the wrong way.
I was just leaving Shaneika at Comanche’s stall, when I spied a hot air balloon drifting overhead.
Shaneika and I watched it float past, wondering who was flying a hot air balloon so close to Churchill Downs on the day of the Kentucky Derby.
Then I saw Charlie Hoskins’ name on the balloon.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” complained Shaneika.
We looked at each other with disgust and then parted. I was going to get dressed in my finery, which included my new Derby hat, and join Lady Elsmere in her suite at Churchill Downs.
Shaneika and her trainer, Mike Connor, would go to her box to watch the Derby race, which was still hours away.
I hadn’t gone more than several steps when I heard a loud boom! Looking up, I saw a fireball in the sky with charred debris falling to the ground. I suddenly realized the balloon had exploded and its gondola was plummeting to the ground.
I quickly muttered a prayer, “Oh, God, please don’t let anyone be hurt.”
Turning, I searched for Shaneika.
She stood rooted, watching the burning wreckage fall to the ground.
Within seconds pandemonium broke out. Screams erupted from the track and horses neighing as they tried to bolt. People were running to safety, trying to dodge the flaming debris from the balloon.
I blinked several times, trying to order my thoughts. Did I really just see a hot air balloon explode in the air? And if I had seen what I thought I had seen, had Charlie been in the balloon and fallen to his death?
I looked back at Shaneika. This was terrible. If Charlie had been in that balloon, it wouldn’t be long before the police would come to interrogate Shaneika.
Only several nights ago, Shaneika and Charlie had had a heated argument, and she had threatened Charlie in front of witnesses at Lady Elsmere’s Derby party.
Shaneika stared back at me.
I could tell she was thinking the same thing as I was.
Shaneika might be in big, big trouble.
DEATH BY DERBY