On Saturday the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby, the most famous of American horse races, will take place at Churchill Downs, that most famous of American racetracks founded by a member of a famous American family - Meriweather Louis Clark, grandson of William Clark (from that great pop duo of America explorers, Lewis and Clark), started the Louisville Jockey Club which in turn gave birth to Churchill Downs, named for Clark's uncles.
There's no question that the event is steeped in Americana, however tangled and contradictory these notions are. Be it paradoxes of an economic or racial nature (consider that between 1875 and 1902, in a period just after the Civil War in a state that straddled the north and south boundaries, 15 of the first 28 Derby winners were ridden by black jockeys) or our exaltation of and obsession with celebrities, the event fuses together widely disparate aspects of our culture.
All spectator sports in this country contain a cross-section of the populace and can be viewed as micro examples of our society as a whole. But more than any sport, thoroughbred racing has the oddest and most clear-cut class distinctions, bordering on the feudal. While the images glimpsed by most TV viewers on that first Saturday in May are of the (very) rich, (in)famous and (exceedingly) privileged stationed in and around the grandstand, the majority of those present at the Derby - somewhere around 80,000 of the 135,000 total - are part of the vast sweaty and drunken throng enclosed in the infield, unable to really view much of the action on the track.
One can choose any number of analogies here, but to me it appears like ranchers overseeing their enclosed figurative and literal animals, no matter how much fun and revelry exists in the infield (but this is old ground, the topic of the seamy and grotesque side to the Derby, and it's already been rendered brilliantly by Hunter S. Thompson in his singular and still relevant essay, "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved" published 40 years ago).
But the fascinating juxtaposition of characters that was once an enduring element to any trip to the track is vanishing quickly. Simply put, by most accounts, no one goes to the track anymore. And the Kentucky Derby is a sort of a very brief distraction from the crowded sports world, not unlike fleeting interest in the more obscure Olympic events. The average sports fan has close to zero interest in the sport.
Of course you still have those intimately involved with racing who are always present at the course - the owners, trainers, jockeys, stable help, etc. But absent are the many railbirds and other characters who, while one may question whether the track is a wise use of one's time on so many occasions, made the atmosphere far more colorful (a personal disclaimer here as I attempted to spend a couple of months at a racetrack in Maryland in my early 20s trying to prove a foolish notion that I could walk away with decent winnings and failed miserably). And the casual fan who just wants to spend a few dollars a couple of times a year are a rarer breed as well.
Sure, the Triple Crown races draw enormous throngs as do a few tracks that cater to wealthy vacationers, such as Saratoga in New York, but aside from that racing has been slowly vanishing as a spectator sport. Off track betting has likely been the chief culprit - after all why the need to go to the track when one can bet closer to home - along with increasing awareness of the negatives of the industry, especially as it pertains to the weight concerns of jockeys. So the decline in thoroughbred racing's popularity, like that of boxing, is explainable to a large degree as opposed to track and field - discussed in a column last week - which has suffered the same fate but for vaguer reasons.
Speaking of jockeys it's hard to imagine that at one time jockeys were as well known as other sports stars. Eddie Arcaro and Willie Shoemaker had the name recognition that few athletes could match back in the 1940s and '50s.
And with celebrities, though there is always a significant involvement between entertainers and racing - for example, Joe Torre has a horse entered this year, Homeboykris - for the most part they aren't in attendance at the track on a frequent basis. This is vastly different from prior eras where Al Jolson, Cary Grant, Bing Crosby, Burt Bacharach, Jack Klugman (who was a true fanatic and owner of horses and with his fantastically appropriate visage could blend in with the track denizens unnoticed) were a familiar presence.
Even if one is fundamentally opposed to gambling or thoroughbred racing but still watches the Triple Crown races, I'd suggest going to the track for fun once or twice to be able to see the strength and speed of the horses, to augment the betting experience, rather than it just be about numbers.
KENTUCKY DERBY FACTS:
* The 32 years since the last Triple Crown winner is by far the longest span between winners. The longest prior stretch was 25 years.
* It's rather surprising that there haven't been more Triple Crown winners as two-thirds (52) of the last 80 years have seen a horse claim at least two legs of the series.
* Man vs. Equine: it's interesting to look at the speed progress of humans and horses. Secretariat's incredible run at the 1973 Derby in under two minutes is still the record. And no horse has run under two minutes since. Secretariat took more than eight seconds off the original run at its present distance in 1896 - for a 7% reduction in time. When examining the record in the men's mile run, Hicham El Guerrouj's time of 3.43.13 bested the initial 1913 IAAF sanctioned mile run of John Paul Jones 4.14.4 by more than 31 seconds - or 12%. So is man's progression in speed more impressive?