LOUISVILLE — They met the first day of first grade at Holy Spirit School.
They were 6 years old. Jack Conway was the quiet type. Victor Perrone was anything but, a class clown who would slip a banana in your shoe just to see the look on your face. The two hit it off famously.
"To this day, I think he is still the most outgoing person I ever met," Conway said. "A total ham. A total ham."
Ah, but Victor Perrone was smart, too, whip-smart. He could play a prank in the morning, ace an exam in the afternoon. Smart and ambitious. Perrone and Conway had that in common, that and a place in Tom Conway's heart.
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Why after the two graduated from St. Xavier High School, and Jack was at Duke for his undergrad or George Washington for law school, he'd call back home only to have Victor answer the phone.
"What are you doing?" Jack would ask.
"Eating your food," Victor would reply. "Sitting on your bed."
See, Tom Conway was a self-made man. He taught school and coached sports at Fairdale High School in Louisville during the day, then attended law school at night. He saw Victor, the ninth child and fifth of five sons in a family of 10, doing the same thing, first when he went off to Tulane, then when he came back to Louisville and was working his way through law school at U of L.
"My father said he never saw a kid who wanted to be a success more than Victor," said Jack.
Then, just like that, Victor was gone.
It was June 1992. Victor was 23 years old when he died in an auto accident in Louisville. At the funeral, Tom Conway was so emotional he wore dark glasses. He didn't want people to see him crying.
He didn't want anyone to forget, either.
The Conways set up a need-based scholarship to St. Xavier in young Victor's name, with a six-figure grant and one condition. The recipient must write a letter to Victor's mom, Jean.
Next to his family and friends, Tom Conway loves horses. He grew up on a farm in Union County, and there's an old photo of him as a child — a photo his brother, Cadillac Jack Conway, likes to show off, by the way — with Tom on a mule, mimicking Eddie Arcaro's Derby ride.
As Tom's law practice took off, he started buying a horse here and there, then a few more, and then last year, Conway's regular trainer, Mike Maker, spotted a son of Ghostzapper that brought $250,000 at the Adena Springs 2-year-olds in training sale in Florida.
"I want you to go in with me on a 2-year-old," Tom told Jack. "And I want to name it after Victor."
"As you can imagine," said Jack Conway, "I got pretty emotional."
Stately Victor, well, he kept getting into trouble. It would be a bad break from the gate. Or it would be traffic problems. Then it was a liver infection. "One in a long line of excuses," said Mike Maker.
The trainer kept faith, however. Never mind that Stately Victor had lost five straight races. Never mind that he hadn't done much on synthetics, much less dirt. Maker talked the Conways into entering the snake-bit 3-year-old in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes on April 10.
Then, like most everyone else at Keeneland that day watching the 40-1 shot, they were amazed.
"As they were coming down the home stretch, and he passed Paddy O'Prado," said Jack Conway of the giant move that sent Stately Victor to victory, "I thought, 'Oh my gosh, my dad has a horse in the Derby.'"
They both do, actually. Tom jokes with friends outside of Barn 45 — "(Mike) Battaglia says he's thinking about picking Victor to win on the air, but he says that's the kiss of death," laughed Tom — while Jack tries to juggle his responsibilities. See, Jack Conway is the state's attorney general, who also just happens to be running for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. The primary is in less than three weeks.
"I was out here (Wednesday) morning then drove to Frankfort for a joint appearance with (secretary of state) Trey Grayson," Jack said. "I stopped at a rest stop and changed into a suit so I'd look presentable."
Actually, there are three of them who have a horse in the Derby — Jack, Tom and Victor.
Jack says he has been grateful this week to tell the old stories, to keep Victor's memory alive. Six of the nine Perrones are coming to Louisville for the race. Brother Tom Perrone, who lives in Louisville, has a 12-year-old son named Victor. They visited the horse Wednesday morning. Little Victor said he was glad to know his horse, since he never got to meet this uncle.
"People have asked me if this has been bittersweet," Tom said Thursday. "It's given us an opportunity to relive 23 years of great memories. And it's confirmed so many things we already knew about Tom and Jack and their feelings for my brother, Victor."
Another of the five brothers, Bud, who lives in New York, sent Jack an e-mail saying he couldn't come to Churchill but was planning the biggest Kentucky Derby party Brooklyn had ever seen.
So what would Victor Perrone have thought of all this?
"He would have loved it," said Jack Conway. "He would have been over there washing off the horse, cracking a bad Rodney Dangerfield joke. He would have loved it."
Reach John Clay at 859-231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3226, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.