I didn’t watch a single game of the NCAA basketball tournament, despite Kentucky’s apparently important role in it. Nor did I watch the Superbowl, nor will I watch this year’s World Series. Ditto the Stanley Cup, and the Rose Bowl, and the NBA championships, and the Indy 500. And you can only imagine what it would take to get me to watch golf on TV.
But on Saturday, along with millions around the world, I will be glued to some TV somewhere as 20 horses gather in Louisville, along with their respective owners, trainers, jockeys, and hangers-on, for the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby.
Why? And, more importantly, why should anyone care who wins a horse race in Louisville, Kentucky, on Saturday? The Derby has come in for its share of criticism over the years: It’s in Louisville, which in itself is enough to hare lip half of Lexington. It only features three-year-olds, which is becoming less of an issue as horses race shorter careers. It comes too early in the horses’ three-year-old year, at a time when most of them have barely turned three biological years old, despite having become three-year-olds on January 1. The Triple Crown races are spaced too closely together, a complaint rarely aired in the days when horses often ran races less than a week apart.
Many, particularly those in the Eastern racing establishment, have long thought that the Belmont Stakes, because of its length, and its timing, is more a test of champions than either the Derby or its virtual twin, the Preakness. Again and again, horses have won at the Derby and Preakness, and then, worn out by the effort, been defeated in the Belmont. Sunday Silence, in 1989, swam to victory in the mud in the Derby, ran his way to victory in the Preakness, only to fade badly in the Belmont.
Holy Bull, supposedly an up-and-coming superhorse in 1994, was already worn out by the time he got to the Derby, and after his 12th place finish (out of 14 runners), laid out both the Preakness and Belmont before beginning the six-race winning streak that earned him honors as three-year-old champion of the year.
The Breeder’s Cup was supposed to take care of all that. I remember when the Breeder’s Cup was formed, with its big time owners and breeders, many of them foreign, some of them tired of what they saw as the tyranny of the First Saturday in May. The Breeder’s Cup races are held in November, at a location shifting among major racetracks around the country, and feature only one day of racing, rather than a series. The purses are bigger than the Triple Crown, and the races are varied in the ages of the horses featured and the length of the contests.
And yet, no one outside the horse world has ever heard of the Breeder’s Cup, while everyone has heard of the Derby. One could say the difference is tradition; the Derby has been around since 1875, while the Breeder’s Cup began in 1987.
The difference is that the Derby has come to symbolize the best that is racing and that is Kentucky, through its years of evolution. The World Series is important because major league baseball says it is. The Superbowl produces the championship NFL team because the NFL says it does.
No one voted to make the Derby America’s race, though Col. Matt Winn, the longtime promoter of the Derby, would have moved heaven and earth to get it on the ballot. The more the Derby began to showcase bits of Kentucky, the more popular it became. Col. Winn himself adopted the persona of the Kentucky gentleman, and though he didn’t get around to including “My Old Kentucky Home” as part of the Derby program until 1924, a year shy of the Derby’s 50th birthday, the race had already come to celebrate Kentucky as much as the horse business itself.
As Kentucky established itself as the Thoroughbred breeding capital of the world in the late 1800s and early 1900s, benefitted in part by the anti-gambling legislation in the East, it began to graft its traditions on to the Derby. Other than its move from a mile and a half to a mile and a quarter in 1896, every significant tradition associated with the Derby arose during the 20th Century, as the race grew in popularity as much as a celebration of Kentucky as of racing.
Longtime Lexington Herald-Leader columnist Don Edwards once wrote, about the horse business in general, that it was kind of like an old, dotty aunt, generally broke, perhaps having had one mint julep too many, redolent of moth balls and cigarette smoke, who sometimes acts a bit disgraceful, but who is nonetheless the life of the party. The traditions which have arisen around the Derby tend to celebrate the doubtful virtues of Kentucky: Bourbon, gambling, Stephen Foster lyrics, with their remaining hint of racism despite modern Bowdlerism. We’ve largely left tobacco out, though I’ve never been to a Derby without a good cigar to go with it.
But if it weren’t for that dotty old aunt, Lexington would be the world’s largest tobacco processing town, and maybe a center of burgoo and fried chicken. Louisville would be another midwestern corn and hog paradise, a little Chicago on the Ohio River. All those beautiful horse farms between here and Paris would have cattle in the pastures, and no fences around the trees. Kentucky would, in short, turn into Indiana overnight.
The political and economic impact of the Derby can’t be argued. It is Kentucky’s biggest day, the closest thing we have to a national “I Love Kentucky” day, and on Derby Day, everyone is a Kentuckian, and a racing fan. I have heard more than one governor of Kentucky say that the Derby is one of the biggest draws the state has to attract investors and those with businesses to locate.
“If I were to contact the president of a large corporation and suggest they come and spend the weekend in Kentucky talking about economic development, I wouldn’t get anywhere,” Wallace Wilkinson famously said, “But if I invite them to come to Louisville for the Derby and sit in the governor’s box, well, that’s a different story.”
I won’t be doing any economic development on Saturday, other perhaps than trying to figure out the economics of my own betting on the race. But I will think back to the Derbies I’ve attended in person, and the many more I’ve attended electronically, sometimes from places far away from the nearest tobacco barn. I’ll remember being far away and seeing some detail on TV, some reference to a creek or a road or a small town in Kentucky in the name of a horse, and reflect for a moment that there is at least one industry that is as deeply centered in Kentucky as I am. I plan to spend Saturday afternoon with that dotty old aunt, and we plan to have a fine time. I hope you do, too.
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying, and governmental relations firm. As a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a life-long interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science and was an award-winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and Miller’s role as legal editor on ABC TV’s “Good Morning, America.” He writes, posts and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.