Sports Nut

The Weirdest Two Minutes in Sports

How we misunderstand the Kentucky Derby.

Point Determined 

Somewhere along the line, the Kentucky Derby became known as “America’s Race,” which seems a bit of a misnomer given that the Derby is not a) America’s best race, b) America’s oldest race, c) the Daytona 500. But so it is with the relentlessly hyped Derby, where undeniable bunkum runs stride for stride with quaint nostalgia and willful anachronism. You can see all of that in the name alone. Since 1896, when the mile-and-a-half race was shrunk to a mile-and-a-quarter, the Derby hasn’t been, strictly speaking, a derby.

America’s Race, in other words, is not quite what it claims to be, which is nothing less than the quintessence of American horse racing. The Kentucky Derby’s true distinction is its utter weirdness, which goes beyond the queer traditions and regional exceptionalism. The Derby is the most anomalous event to be reckoned the centerpiece of its sport, more of a novelty than a proving ground for greatness.

Consider: Saturday’s 132nd Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown, demands that a bunch of variously talented 3-year-olds race a distance none of them has raced before and many will never race again. (The typical Kentucky Derby prep race runs a more conventional 1-1/16th or 1-1/8th miles.) Because the race holds such an exalted place in the sport, horse folk tend to succumb to what’s known as Derby Fever, causing otherwise rational owners and trainers to bloat the track with leaden pretenders. This weekend, 20 thoroughbreds will cram into the Churchill Downs gate, a lineup that’s roughly eight horses larger than any horse in the field is used to. What’s more, the race will play out in a manner that perhaps only the surliest of the lot are accustomed to. By comparison, the Tampa Bay Derby prep race had a field this year of only nine, light country traffic compared with the rough gridlock in Louisville.

Saturday’s winner will likely not even be the Derby’s best horse. He will merely be one of the lucky few who survives the manic break from the gate, during which the long, thin line of horses bunches up suddenly, like a Slinky. It is a brutal trip, what with all the early roller-derby bumping and jostling, not to mention the race’s generally scorching pace. “The Derby,” the Washington Post’s Andrew Beyer explained last year, “is the most stressful race in America.”

What we get, then, is a not-very-representative sample of thoroughbreds running a far-from-typical race under far-from-typical circumstances. And from this mess, a horse emerges that is supposed to lift racing out of the doldrums. The moment the Derby wire is breached, horse racing’s star-making apparatus (feeble as it may be) kicks in. Casual fans are more apt to remember mediocre Derby champions like last year’s Giacomo, who hasn’t won a race since, than great thoroughbreds like Ghostzapper, possibly the best horse of the past decade.

Ghostzapper offers an interesting case study. He sidestepped Churchill Downs entirely, and later even the trainer sounded wistful about missing the Derby. “I know you dream of winning the Kentucky Derby,” Bobby Frankel told reporters after what ended up being Ghostzapper’s final race, “but the best dream is to know you have the best horse.” In 2004, Ghostzapper won racing’s definitive championship, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which is open to horses 3 years old and up * from around the world and thus attracts a more formidable field than the Derby. (Jay Hovdey, the Daily Racing Form executive columnist, says the Breeders’ Cup is “more a reflection of the breadth and depth of the sport than it is the screaming high note.”) He even beat out Smarty Jones—the wildly popular thoroughbred who came within a length of winning the Triple Crown—for Horse of the Year honors. Yet even today racing fans still talk about Smarty and his near-miss. Ghostzapper, meanwhile, has been dispatched to the stud farm, where he’s quietly screwing away his emeritus years.

The Derby, alas, remains the yardstick. “The Kentucky Derby is the greatest race in the world,” Ernie Moody, an owner of one of Saturday’s contenders, Sinister Minister, told the Louisville Courier-Journal, “and we just want to be a part of it.” Owners will continue to push their horses toward Churchill Downs, and horse racing will continue to go spelunking for its next icons in its sui generis Derby. The Derby winner will always earn a sort of brief prefab stardom—not necessarily greatness, but something that resembles greatness on television. Maybe it is America’s Race, after all.

Correction, May 10, 2006:This story originally and incorrectly stated that the Breeders’ Cup Classic is open to “horses older than 3.” The race is open to horses 3 years old and up. (Return to the corrected sentence.)