There are strokes of luck, lucky streaks and lucky charms.
But there aren’t really a lot of snappy figures of speech for coming in second.
Last weekend sports fans watched in shock as frontrunner favorite Maximum Security handily crossed the finish line in the Kentucky Derby, only to be disqualified and second-placer Country House took the win, the first time in the Derby’s 145-year history.
But most second-place finishers don’t get much attention.
And some, like Sam Ross, just clap for the winner while they stand on the side.
Last month Ross and a man he never met, Bob Pesti, were out in search of a little lunch when their paths crossed.
Both men are from Elyria. Both men went to the Discount Drug Mart on North Abbe Road on April 15.
Neither men knew the company was celebrating its 50th anniversary that day. They didn’t know that the Elyria store was its original location.
And they had no idea that the company was planning to give out a $5,000 check to the 50th customer.
Pesti, 76, had been shopping there since it opened in 1969. He walked up to pay for a half-pound package of honey turkey when the balloons appeared and the oversized check.
Just behind him in line?
The way he sees it, the chocolate milk got him.
Ross, 36, has lived in Elyria all his life and shopped at that Drug Mart plenty of times.
A caterer and bartender with Ruby Tuesday’s, Ross was out that morning delivering lunches to businesses when he decided to do a responsible thing: pay a bill.
“I usually pay my gas bill online but for some reason I stopped at the courtesy center to pay my bill. That might have been my downfall,” he said. “Then I got in line to buy chocolate milk. I grabbed one and that was the clincher. It always seems to screw you in the end, doesn’t it?”
Sure, there had been signs — a radio station in the parking lot and employees grilling hot dogs — but he thought nothing of it.
Lunch meat and chocolate milk — and life, fickle as usual, set both of those men on a different path that day.
Ross, Customer No. 51, politely clapped for No. 50. As Pesti left with $5,000, Ross left with a receipt for his gas bill and a chocolate milk.
“It was definitely a shock to see it happen but, yeah, that just figured,” he said.
Second-place, runner-up, always-a-bridesmaid-but-never-a-bride — it’s all got a story of its own.
Golf legend Jack Nicklaus has won 18 major titles in his storied career, but he’s also come in second 19 times. In 2004, singer Jennifer Hudson finished in seventh place on “American Idol” and went on to win an Academy Award, eclipsing her competitors.
Second-place winners were celebrated in a book released in 2008 by photographer Sandy Nicholson, who profiled almost-winners in spelling bees, a bullrider who lost when a bull stepped on his face and broke his jaw, and a man who “preferred not to discuss” his losing finish in the Rock Paper Scissors World Series.
In 2012, a British professor of behavioral science and strategy studied second-placers among businesses, gamers and athletes, only to find that statistics showed second-place finishers nearly always eventually beat the first-place winners. Luck, he said, matters more than skill, advantage or training.
Ross knows a bit about that.
When he was a seventh-grader at Northwood Junior High in Elyria, he wrote an essay about “an American hero.” He chose his dad, Harry. The essay was so good he won the whole school competition and was invited to an American Legion hall to read it aloud before an audience that included some members of Congress.
A girl from St. Jude School placed first in the essay contest.
“But I was just really happy to be there. I got to meet a few guys from Washington, that was the first time that ever happened,” he said. “I never blamed my dad for being the reason I came in second. That would’ve been a tough pill to swallow.”
Lots of times he’s come in fourth — and sometimes fifth — in sporting events. He played baseball and football through high school.
“I was an offensive lineman. I never got the glory,” he said. “I do remember this one play we had, though. I actually got to run the ball and I probably would’ve got quite a few yards running the play but it ended up being an illegal play and we didn’t get to run it.”
He’s an affable wingman, happy for others while wistfully wondering what it would be like to be “that guy.”
“‘I’ve never really been in the spotlight before,” he said, trying to recall. “I would like to know what it would be like to be first. But I’m also one of those people that’s not comfortable in the spotlight. I don’t know. I mean, I don’t mind being the one who helps the team out, but maybe … just one time.”
Then suddenly, the second banana became the top dog in the space of an afternoon.
Ross went about his day after the Drug Mart near-jackpot ordeal and then came home to find a load of messages on his Facebook account. “All my friends were like, ‘Bruce Bishop is looking for you!’ And I was like, “Oh my God, why?’ ”
Ross didn’t know Bishop, chief photographer for The Chronicle-Telegram, but Bishop had captured the photo that morning of the $5,000 check just feet away from Ross. In a Facebook post, Bishop mused about the poor guy who missed out by seconds. Turns out, another Chronicle employee was a friend of Ross’, and the story spun out a little further.
The Chronicle had taken a photo in 2015 of Black Friday shoppers at a local store — and Ross can be seen just off to the side of that one, too.
“This is actually the most attention I’ve ever gotten so far. It’s pretty wild,” Ross said. “But I’m happy living the mediocre life. It doesn’t bother me. It’s pretty uneventful, but it’s been a good ride.”