Kentucky Derby links state’s past with present

By Bill Felber

The plainly hyperbolic nature of the book’s subtitle — overlooking as it does the Super Bowl, the World Series, the NCAA tournament, a few auto races and a couple of golf and tennis tournaments —invites a question regarding why anybody should even take the book seriously.

The answer lies in recognition that whoever wrote the subtitle did not read the book. Nicholson makes no claim of pre-eminence for the Derby in the American sports panoply. Indeed he concedes in the book’s first paragraph that horse racing generally is widely viewed as “an anachronistic sport whose heyday is long past.”

The Derby itself, however, is another matter, largely because the Derby has long represented the both profound and puzzling heritage of the state of Kentucky itself.

There is and long has been a Rorschach element to Kentucky (and, the author would argue, by extension to the Derby).

The state is in many respects culturally southern. Slavery was permitted in antebellum Kentucky, and flourished on many of the state’s mansions. Yet the state’s affinity with the South was not strong enough to pull Kentucky into the Confederate orb; Kentucky never seceded from the Union, and its citizens fought on both sides in the conflict, often brother against brother. Kentuckians are fond of pointing out that both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were Kentucky natives.

There has always been a third component to the Kentucky culture, a frontier ethic.

This element is perhaps best represented in the persona of Daniel Boone, the frontiersman whose deeds and explorations Nichols frequently draws attention to. And although not widely viewed as a cosmopolitan state, there are also elements of urbanity readily present, largely in Louisville, the Derby’s home.

To Nicholson, the Derby becomes an annual “mediator between Kentucky’s mythic past and modern society.” Any Derby attendee can see this mediation at the track itself, as high-society types in the clubhouse engage in conspicuous consumption contests within sight of an infield crowd that is one part Woodstock, one part NASCAR and one or more parts Jim Beam. 

The Derby did not spring whole in this format. It developed over decades to its present state. The event has been run since 1875, but not until the first few decades of the 20th century did it acquire more than a regional persona. That persona is largely attributable to the vision and effort of a single man, Col. Matt Winn.

A Louisville native, Winn worked in retailing before purchasing an interest in Churchill Downs in 1902. A superb promoter both of the Derby and of himself, Winn built the race into pre-eminence by developing the best network of industry contacts, enabling him in short order to attract the highest quality field of horses nationally as well as regionally.

‘Winn sold a vision, a dream and a lifestyle,” Nicholson writes. “He was selling romantic notions of Old Kentucky and the Old South.” At the same time, Winn appealed to the sensory tastes of his era’s rich and famous as well as the wannabees. The Derby, Richardson adds, “became an opportunity for the swells to indulge in vice and a chance for the masses to experience a bit of luxury.”

The book is light on descriptions of the races themselves, although not bereft of them. Richardson is more of a business reporter than a sports reporter, so the deeds of such equine legends as Barbaro or Citation are generally confined to one or two paragraphs.

This strikes me as a missed opportunity, particularly in a book of fewer than 220 pages. Consider the Derby career of Assault, a horse you’ve probably never heard of, although he won the Triple Crown (The Derby Preakness and Belmont) in 1946.

Only a dozen horses in history have done that, none since 1978. And even among Triple Crown winners, Assault stands out, having won the Derby by a record eight lengths.

Plainly this was a superior horse, yet any mention of Assault is confined to a single, albeit long, paragraph. Had Richardson been willing to merely split the focus of his book more evenly between the track and the competitors, the narrative would have been stronger and the story-telling more multi-dimensional.

Bill Felber is the Mercury’s managing editor.

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