- Associated Press - Sunday, April 25, 2021

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - A flip of a coin sealed their fate. If only all love stories were this simple, and sweet. So goes the innocence of young love.

The year was 1983 and the first Saturday in May was setting up to be a sunny and hot Kentucky Derby Day. Wearing tangerine-colored shorts, a t-shirt and sneakers, 15-year-old Gretchyn Turpen finished brushing her wavy brown hair then slid into the backseat of her parent’s car. Going to the Kentucky Derby as a family was a long-standing tradition for the Turpens.

“My parents volunteered every year in the infield at the first turn to take care of the University of Louisville Marching Band who play ‘My Old Kentucky Home,’” said Gretchyn. “I grew up in a family that just loved everything about the Derby and the weeks leading up to it.”

While the Turpens were loading into their car, a few miles away near Seneca Park, another 15-year-old named Tommy Furlong was also prepping for the long day at Churchill Downs Racetrack with a group of his buddies from Trinity High School.

“They banged on my bedroom window around 6:30 in the morning and I was so tired, I almost didn’t go with them,” he said. “But they convinced me to get up and I am glad that I did because it turned out to be one of the most important days of my life.”

The teenage boys spent the morning mixing a batch of infamous Jungle Juice, the traditional beverage of the infield consisting of whatever alcohol they could get their hands on.

“It was probably vodka or Barcardi 151 and Koolaid, but who knows,” Tommy said. “And I don’t remember how we snuck it into the infield. Probably Ziploc baggies.”

Looking back, maybe it was a magic love potion in those plastic bags because within the next few hours, Tommy Furlong, whose last name happens to be the term used to measure distance in a horse race, would meet the girl of his dreams in the infield during the 109th Kentucky Derby.

On that day, excitement hummed through the air as it always does at the Kentucky Derby. The din of the swelling crowd continued to grow as the sun moved lazily across a cloudless blue sky. Time passed punctuated by the thundering thoroughbreds circling the infield while the sing-song cadence of the track announcer did his job by whipping up anticipation over the loudspeakers throughout the day.

As the sun beat down on the shadeless lawn separated by fencing from the dirt track, small herds of teenagers roamed the inner boundaries of the infield. Like prairie dogs or Emperor penguins, some huddled together as they moved through the mass of race fans while other groups branched out and mingled with strangers.

As Tommy and his Trinity High School crew set up their infield camp at the third turn, Gretchyn, who was under strict orders from her parents to stay close to the infield’s first turn, wandered over to the rowdier section where the boys had laid out their blankets and punch.

Gretchyn was a rule follower and said she really doesn’t know why she disobeyed her parents on that day, but if she hadn’t, she would never have caught Tommy’s eye.

“Sunny’s Halo won the Kentucky Derby but Tommy Furlong won my heart,” said Gretchyn. “At the infield’s third turn, we both got lucky on that beautiful Derby Day.”

Eddie Turpen and his daughter Gretchyn Furlong at the Kentucky Oaks. Eddie wore a pink cowboy hat in honor of Churchill Down’s tradition of shining a light on Breast Cancer Awareness at the Oaks.

Of course, all good love stories have a twist and this one has a doozy. When Tommy and Gretchyn met, he knew he wanted to spend the day with her.

“The thing I remember about Gretchyn was how easy she was to talk to. I had never met anyone like her,” Tommy said.

But how could he make sure he could spend the rest of that Kentucky Derby Day with her?

“I didn’t know it at the time but in order to decide which boy got to hang out with me, they flipped a coin,” said Gretchyn.

Tommy lost the first toss but convinced his friend to make it the best two out of three.

Once he’d won the game, being a smooth operator even at age 15, Tommy suggested that Gretchyn join him for a game of spin the bottle. (Hey, remember this is the Kentucky Derby and in the infield, pretty much anything legal goes.)

“Well I thought we were going to play with a group of people but Tommy led me to a blanket and no one else was there to play,” she laughed. “He spun the bottle, of course it landed on me, he leaned over and kissed me and that’s how it all got started.”

“It just sounds like such a crazy story when we try to tell this to our kids about how we met,” said Gretchyn.

During the summer of 1983, the young couple’s romance grew. Tommy would visit Gretchyn by riding his bicycle several miles to her home and by the fall, they would talk for hours on the telephone after school. Before long, he asked her to go steady and gave her his ring.

“My parents were pretty lenient while I was growing up. They were only strict about New Year’s Eve and the Kentucky Derby, so I never told them I had met Tommy at the third turn,” Gretchyn said. “We told my parents we met at Seneca Park and never revealed the truth until right before we were married in 1992.”

They had a June wedding - come on you can’t get married on Derby Day - but the couple, who have now been married for 38 years, celebrate their anniversary each year on the first Saturday in May.

Churchill Downs is such an important part of Tommy and Gretchyn’s story that they started taking their three children to the track for the spring and fall meets when they were young.

“Our children are grown now and when our daughter brought home a new boyfriend, the first thing my dad did was pin a Kentucky Derby Festival pin on him and gave him a hug,” Gretchyn said. “That’s how we all feel about this time of year.”

Derby season is a special, maybe even a magical time of the year in Louisville. “There must be some kind of Churchill Downs track magic involved when you become Mrs. Furlong after a chance meeting on the third turn,” Gretchyn said.

True, maybe only “track magic” can result in a chance meeting on a hot and sunny Saturday when Sunny’s Halo won the Kentucky Derby and a teenage boy with the last name Furlong, tossed a coin to win a kiss with a pretty girl who says she won her future husband during the “Run for the Roses” at Churchill Downs.

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