The Kentucky Derby Does it Once Again

Sport may not be at the top of the lists, but Americans embracing Derby more and more

by John Furgele

Horse racing may have seen its best days, but one thing becomes clearer and clearer each year, and that is that Americans love the Kentucky Derby.  The 2015 edition generated a 10.8 TV rating and 24 share and was attended by a record crowd of 173,000 plus.  On most days, the crowds are sparse and the off track parlors are filled with guys generally over the age of 60.  I went to an off-track betting parlor on Friday to make my Derby bet, and at age 47, I was the youngest by at least 20 years.  But, the Derby has taken its rightful place as a true American event.  I’m not sure why this is but as our lives become more hectic and more separated, I believe that many are trying to instill old American values into their kids and younger people in general.

The sport was much more popular in the 1940s, 50s, 60s and the 70s, when we saw three Triple Crown winners, yet there was never 173,000 people at Churchill Downs to see the classic races and the  horses like Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.    Now, when Churchill Downs resumes racing this week, the crowds might be lucky to reach 5,000, but an event is an event, and people want to be there and watch it.

The Preakness will be another classic event.  The TV rating will be lower, but there will be at least 110,000 at Pimlico on the third Saturday in May.  The city of Baltimore should look forward to the celebration.  The last few weeks have not shown Charm City in its best light, but those who know the city, know it’s a great town and Baltimoreans have always done right by the second jewel of racing’s Triple Crown.  Furthermore, the right horse won the Derby in American Pharaoh.  For the first time, he was hooked and he responded, pulling away from the feisty Sunland Derby winner, Firing Line and another toughie in Dortmund.  Because he was the favorite and not some 50-1 shot, the country, at least until 7 pm on May 16 believes that he can win the elusive Triple Crown.   The belief brings the hype and for the next 12 days, it will be felt.

Horse racing has done many good things in the last 25 years.  More tracks have become family friendly, knowing that to exist long-term, they have to get younger people to venture out a few times a year and do some betting.  Another great thing is the creation of syndicates.  Most of us can’t plunk down $250,000 to buy a yearling, but through groups like West Point Thoroughbreds, you can pay a monthly fee and get in the game.  The sport will continue to get the wealthy involved.  These people have earned that right.  They’ve made their money and when you have money, there has to be something that excites you enough to spend it.  Despite that, the bluebloods and those of high society have seemed to have made peace with the commoners buying into a syndicate to get involved in the game.  The scions of American racing can’t live forever and we need the Mike Repoles as well as the syndicates to get involved in the sport.  The Sport of Kings is allowing the bishops and knights and a few peasants in and overall, that’s a good thing.

Many of the 173,000 at Churchill Downs might not have seen the race.  Let’s be honest, for many, it is a great party, a great excuse to get drunk, stumble around and have some fun.  And, does any country like a party more than the United States?  That said there is something for everyone.  For me, it was like Christmas Day.  I wake up excited and earlier than usual for a Saturday, but what I cherish is sharing the joy with others.  It is the one time of the year where I can profess my love for horse racing and my friends, colleagues, co-workers and even my mother actually seemed interested.  I received several texts from friends asking for my Derby winner (for the record, I picked Firing Line) and that never happens the rest of the year.  What does that tell you?  That people care enough to seek a horse racing lover and ask that question.  And, as those texts came in, my face lit up with joy because they were sharing—if only for one day—in the big race.

I don’t expect to get those same texts for the Preakness and if American Pharaoh doesn’t win, they surely won’t be coming for the Belmont, but as a fan of the sport, you take it when you can get it.  But, if Pharaoh pulls it off at Pimlico, then, once again, America will get jacked up for another run at the Triple Crown, which is never a bad thing.  The great thing is the resolve of Americans.  Twelve times since 1978, a horse has won the Derby and the Preakness and 12 times, they have been denied in the Belmont.  But, despite the letdown, Americans gear up and hope that the next time will be the charm.  They refuse to be deterred and say that it won’t happen.

As much as fans of the sport want a Triple Crown, I have concerns about it if it happens.  America loves its suffering.  Red Sox fans suffered for 86 years, White Sox fans for 88.  Cleveland baseball fans have suffered since 1948 and Cleveland Browns fans for another 50.  If American Pharaoh wins the crown this year, what will happen in 2017 when another horse wins in Louisville and Baltimore?  Will we wave a collective hand and say, I just saw that?  As the drought gets longer and longer, the suffering becomes a rite of passage.

I believe that the sport receives more attention when the horse is denied because, invariably, the sports talkers and writers bring it up the Monday after the Belmont.  The failures generate conversations that last for a few days.  Would success generate as many?  Of course, most of us would like to measure that after one horse sweeps the three and joins that elite group.

All in all, we, as a country embrace the big events.  My dad wanted us to watch the Derby and I make my kids watch it because someday I’ll be gone and hopefully my kids will make their kids watch and pass on not a love of horse racing, but a love for America and its traditions.  And, May is good month for traditions with the Derby and the Indianapolis 500 at the beginning and the end of the month.

As we grow more diverse, there has to be something that can bring us together if just for a few moments, hours or days.  The Kentucky Derby did that again and for a nation, that’s all good.

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