Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Why Does Anybody Care about the Kentucky Derby?

(It’s the offseason in everything except baseball, and even I’m not diehard enough to care about Big Ten baseball. So, I'll have some Kentucky Derby talk this week along with whatever Big Ten tidbits catch my eye. Still working on the Iowa preview. Sorry, but I've been busy.)

Horse racing is not exactly surging in popularity right now. A recent poll asking people their favorite sport pegged support for horse racing at 1%, which is better than the zeros and asterisks for a few sports, but not much (another poll pegs horse racing as roughly as popular women’s volleyball, which, fair enough). People pay attention during the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May, watch the Preakness two weeks later to see how the Derby winner does, and then watch the Belmont if the Kentucky Derby winner also won the Preakness. Some, but not nearly as many, will watch the Breeders’ Cup in the fall. A few will turn out for the big race in their region of the country. That’s about it.

But why the Kentucky Derby? Contrary to what new fans or non-fans might think, the Kentucky Derby is not the Super Bowl of thoroughbred racing. That is, the Kentucky Derby does not take the best horses from the world (and country) and face them off in a race; that would be the Breeders’ Cup Classic—theoretically—in November. The Derby doesn’t even necessarily attract very good horses. Only three year olds can race in the Derby (by convention, all horses bred in the northern hemisphere share birthdays on January 1, so the horses in the Derby next Saturday will be somewhere between 36 and 41 months old). Not all thoroughbreds develop on the same schedule, but only extremely rarely is a horse that young as good as his elders in the handicap division. Even with the current very weak handicap division, any of the top dozen horses, at least, in the division right now would go off as the overwhelming favorite in the Derby if they were eligible.

The Derby isn’t even the three year old championship. Races have been going on all over the country for three year olds to gain eligibility to the Derby, and the top money earners will race Saturday. In that sense, the Derby is a culmination of the process. But this isn’t the end of the three year old division. After all, the two other Triple Crown races are for three year olds only as well. The Preakness is funny because it comes only two weeks after the Derby (top horses are almost never run that quickly back to back any more), and the Belmont is funny because it’s a mile and a half (top horses almost never run that far anymore). But there will be others: the Jim Dandy and, more importantly, the Travers at Saratoga in the late summer are for three year olds as well, and by this point, the colts are more fully physically developed. There is no race that announces which horse was the best three year old, and the Derby is only one data point among many.

Hell, the Derby isn’t even particularly good at identifying good horses for later races. The past two winners, Mine That Bird and Super Saver, failed to win another race before their retirement. Many horses that win the Derby and other Triple Crown races are quickly retired (better to preserve their value for the breeding shed). This is what happened to Smarty Jones, for example, after falling just short of the Triple Crown in the Belmont. Other Derby winners, such as Funny Cide, have reasonable but unspectacular careers. The only two Derby winners in the past ten years that have done any better than that are Big Brown (and that’s debatable; Big Brown won two stakes races after the Belmont, including one on grass, but neither race had a particularly good field), and Street Sense.

That’s what the Kentucky Derby isn’t. But it is some things, too. The Derby is the unofficial start of the spring, even more so than the start of baseball season (it can, and often does, snow on April 1, after all), just as football season inaugurates the fall. The Derby is also the longest running annual sporting event in America, stretching back to 1875 (the Belmont started in 1874 but was put on hiatus for two years in the 1910s as New York banned gambling). The race is a throwback to an earlier era—not the gilded age of ruffled collars and muttonchops when the Derby began (though Stephen Foster does become strangely moving for a few moments during My Old Kentucky Home), but an era when women wore fancy hats and men drank mint juleps and wore less-fancy hats and none of those things were interesting enough to point out. Maybe that era never really existed as we pretend, but that’s not the point. Every year, three year olds run in Kentucky on the first Saturday in May, and for lots of people, that continuity alone is important, whether the trappings of that continuity are real or imagined.

For others, the Derby is the betting race par excellence. Twenty horses enter the race, none of which have run a mile and a quarter in their lives. Millions upon millions upon millions of dollars in wagers are placed, and in horse racing, your payout depends upon how much other people bet. Guess the first two horses in order and you're probably getting a healthy three figures in return for two bucks; the first three horses will earn you at least a grand and maybe twenty times that; guessing the first four horses in order will change your life. If a gambler can’t get excited about that, maybe he should stick with slot machines or keno.

Finally, and maybe it's hokey, but the Derby is about hope. Racing hasn’t had a Triple Crown winner since 1978. Maybe you can’t name a current thoroughbred to save your life, but chances are that you've heard of the last three Triple Crown winners: Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Secretariat. Yes, there are Super Savers and Mine That Birds that flame out, never to win or even contend again. But there also superstars that first capture the public’s imagination at Churchill Downs. Had Secretariat not won the Derby, only diehards, degenerates, and historians would remember his commanding Belmont win. Almost all information is public, and for a week, America has ten million handicappers. Everyone learns, again, how to read the racing form. Everyone unironically turns their attention to the 16th most popular sport in America, even if they're only ironically drinking their juleps. Owners dream of winning the Derby. Jockeys riding at tracks in Podunk fantasize about riding a horse that somehow makes one, even if it means finishing up the track. Grown men are driven to tears. If the Kentucky Derby did not exist, someone would have to invent it. Fortunately, that’s unnecessary.