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Kentucky Derby Endure as Horse Racing's Most Glorious spectacle

By Steve Byk

In the sporting world, there are a host of expressions that evoke instant recognition and comprehension. "Super Sunday” immediately conjures images of American professional football’s ultimate gridiron spectacle, while "Opening Day” conveys the eagerly anticipated "right of spring” heralding baseball’s return. For avid and casual fans of thoroughbred horse racing in the U.S. and around the world, there are no five words more reverentially uttered or gleefully heard than "the first Saturday in May.” It is on the afternoon of that day that the Kentucky Derby, the most exciting two minutes in sports and the start of racing’s Triple Crown series, is contested.

The Kentucky Derby runs for the 131th consecutive time May 7, the longest continuously-run race of its kind in the "Sport of Kings” and easily America’s most enduring tradition of wagering-based competition. Thoroughbred racing was after all, America’s first sport of any kind. Historical records show that competitive pairings of horses began at the Jamestown Colony as early as 1610 when King James I sent over 7 of his Arabians. While that initial shipment might not have kicked off the thoroughbred industry as it would come to be in America, it was the organic introduction of a natural form of entertainment for a fledgling agrarian nation.

Many of the settlers that landed in Massachusetts and Virginia had bred and raced horses in England, and it wasn’t long before the seeds of the horse breeding and racing industry were planted in America. At the time, the need of horses as beasts of burden and transportation far outweighed their use as sporting interests, but that didn’t prevent stable boys from racing their master’s steeds down main thoroughfares on Sunday afternoons for the amusement of the citizenry. The practice was so common that one of the earliest resolutions passed by the Virginian King’s Council was a statute preventing such contests on city streets in 1650. Origins of America’s first sport lives on to this day in Philadelphia however, where contests of equine prowess down old Sassafras St. became so common that the avenue eventually became known as "Race St.”.

The practice of breeding and racing horses spread and flourished with the growth of the colonies. Regularly, men of early landed wealth pitted their best mare or horse against rivals with stakes of cash or its equivalent wagered on the result. The earliest known trophy for a race in America dates back to 1668, a silver porringer donated by New York’s first British governor Richard Nicholls. A particularly avid racing enthusiast, Nicholls laid out the first race course in the new world on Long Island not far from where Aqueduct Racetrack now sits. The hierarchy of racing in America was scarcely different than in England, where the wealthiest titled land owners and most powerful politicians established the rules of the sport, maintained the strongest stables and developed the properties that would give rise to the racing ovals as we know them today.

Over the next 100 years, the inevitable growth of leisure time led to the establishment of race "meets” at annual agricultural fairs and hunts in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New York. The popularity of such gatherings gave rise to the founding of the Jockey Clubs that created the parameters for the meets which still rule the sport today. When construction of formal race courses and grandstands followed in the early 1800’s, horse racing became the first permanent fixture of sporting life in America.

Most of the manners and traditions of the sport were derived from the model provided back in England. Beginning in 1780, the 12th Earl of Derby sponsored a race for colts and horses near Epson which became the most important event of its kind, the English "Darby”. His race for fillies and mares, established 20 years later, was named "Oaks” in honor of his ancestral home. The Derby and Oaks were attended by English "lords and ladies” and was a highlight of the social calendar. After the Civil War, Kentucky became an important center for the production of thoroughbred race horses, its climate and "bluegrass” pastures remarkably conducive to the health and development of the thoroughbred. Churchill Downs, Kentucky’s premier race course, named its spring features the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks in 1875 in deference to the standard-bearing events in racing’s home country.

Today, thoroughbred horse racing is a multi-billion dollar enterprise that employs hundreds of thousands in North America alone. And while ordinary "folk” constitute the vast majority of its fan and employee base, the lure of racing’s pageantry continues to be driven by "patrons of sport,” a heritage corner-stoned by many of America’s most storied families, including names like Vanderbilt, Whitney, Keene, Stimson, Lorillard and Phipps. With America eschewing the European form of titular standing, participation in racing as a horse owner or breeder served as an example of social position from the sport’s earliest days. One immediate outgrowth of any individual example of Horatio Alger-style American success has been entry into racing as a means of politely joining "Café Society.”

Laura Hillenbrand’s "Seabiscuit: An American Legend” for example, related the Depression-era story of bicycle repairman turned automobile sales magnate Charles Howard and his wildly successful foray into racing. Chicago taxicab owner John Hertz turned his business into America’s top rental car agency, financed his wife’s entry into racing, and campaigned Triple Crown winner Count Fleet in 1943. Calumet Farms, the single most successful racing stable in American history with six Kentucky Derby winners, grew from the fortune amassed by the Wright family selling their stables’ namesake baking powder.

Whether passed on as a birthright or as a means of social climbing, the lure of involvement in horse racing, and a victory in the Kentucky Derby in particular, has proven irresistible. In recent years, R&B recording industry legend Phil Chess has come close to racing’s greatest prize, while society diva Marylou Whitney returned her family’s name to the upper echelon when her Bird Town surprised the Kentucky Oaks in 2003. Doughnut chain heir Ron Winchell had one of the winter favorites for this year’s Derby in Tapit, while Cot Campbell’s famed Dogwood Stables campaigned Limehouse. The Phipps family, long among New York racing elite, have a regally-bred, "late developing” colt in their Leading the Parade, while Klaravich Stables, lead by Boston investment firm head Seth Klarman, made headlines this Spring with Read the Footnotes and Swingforthefences.

Hollywood has long been a fertile source for racehorse ownership, and given the industries parallels of money, fame, glamour and excitement, the marriage has survived for decades. When racing established itself on the West Coast, film moguls like Louis B. Meyer joined in eagerly. Meyer built a large stable of classy horses which never quite found the level of success "L.B.” had set with MGM. In 1937, Bing Crosby and film star friends helped found the famed Del Mar Race Track north of San Diego ("Where the surf meets the turf”). The quaint club quickly became a summer hangout for the crooner and much of Hollywood’s aristocracy. As recently as last year, the film industry continued its love affair with the races when producer Steven Spielberg, director Gary Ross and associates involved in the "Seabiscuit” motion picture, bought a share of Kentucky Derby contender Atswhatimtalknbout (He finished fourth.)

The Derby especially sounds a clarion call that owner and fan each find as alluring as the beckoning of sirens. For an owner, a blanket of roses draped over their horses’ neck in the Churchill winner’s circle means an immortality that dwarfs the considerable financial rewards of the achievement. For fans, attending the Derby is akin to a Mecca-like pilgrimage whether a long-running annual tradition or once-in-a-lifetime visit. For all, it is a non-stop party of unrivaled conviviality like none other anywhere in America.

Stoking the build-up to the race is the two week Kentucky Derby Festival, a city-wide jamboree that involves all of Louisville the way Mardi Gras permeates New Orleans. Conceived in the 1950’s, as many as 1.5 million visitors now take part in more than 70 scheduled events run by 4,000 Festival volunteers as Louisville opens its arms to the world. The single largest annual fireworks display in the U.S. takes place during the Fest, "Thunder over Louisville”, and major music acts appear nearly nightly around the city. A historic riverboat race on the Ohio River between the Belle of Louisville and Delta Queen for the "Golden Antlers Award,” a hot air balloon race and "Pegasus” parade contribute to a frenzied party atmosphere that sustains itself up to the Kentucky Oaks on Friday and through Derby Day itself.

Fund raising formals and historic annual galas hosted by local socialites and politicians draw celebrities from all segments of sport and entertainment that "make the scene” Derby Week and fuel the electric atmosphere. The Derby Museum Gala, Seelbach Hotel Gala and a dozen other soirees fill the agenda of Louisville visitors the week leading up to Saturday. The Mint Jubilee draws an elite crowd, but Patricia Barnstable Brown’s Derby Eve Diabetes Research Gala has been the premier event of the calendar for several years selling out quickly and drawing a star-studded guest list. David and Courtney Cox Arquette, Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey, race circuit regular Michael Imperioli, models Kylie Bax and Molly Sims, musician Kid Rock, Larry King, horsewoman Bo Derek and many more paparazzi favorites have been annual guests.

With the ever-growing glut of famous faces this year , a first time "VIP Reception” was held at the Whitney Theater Friday night for the sole purpose of letting the celebrity Derby-goers introduce themselves to one another in advance of the race and the post-Derby Grand Gala at Caesars Indiana. But the attendance of storied celebrities is nothing new at the Derby. Sports legend guests like Babe Ruth, Joe Namath and Muhammad Ali and film luminaries such as Bob Hope, John Wayne and Claudette Colbert were regulars in decades past, and British royalty visited on three occasions: Lord Derby in 1930, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor in 1951 and Princess Margaret and Lord Snowden for the 100th running in 1974.

The traditions associated with the Kentucky Derby extend beyond the parties and celebrity attendance however. When the distribution of red roses to female patrons at a posh late-19th century Derby party proved a delight, Churchill Downs president Col. Lewis Clark began the tradition of presenting a rose garland to the race’s winner. By 1904, the red rose was the official flower of the Derby and the race itself was coined the "Run for the Roses” 20 years later by a NY sports writer.

Stephen Foster’s "My Old Kentucky Home” has been the theme music of the Derby since around 1929 when sports writing legend Damon Runyon first noted its playing as the horses came on the track in his post-race column. There are few moments in sports that rival the sound of "My Old Kentucky Home" wafting over the 150,000 assembled as the butterflies of months of anticipation flutter furiously. Though many in attendance aren’t from Bluegrass Country and barely know the words, it can be impossible to hold back tears at its rendering in this setting.

Finally, in a tradition for the masses, the party in the Churchill Downs infield is one of epic size, intensity and debauchery. With room for nearly 100,000, the infield is a blue collar "gala” of its own that many never miss, though they may not actually see a horse the entire afternoon. Here, beer and ready-mixed Mint Juleps replace the champagne and top shelf bourbon of the black tie set. But Derby Day is a great equalizer in guaranteeing that all strata of society in attendance will be equally drunk by post time of the big race. And whether holding a winning ticket after the horses have passed the wire or not, all involved recognize the grand spectacle and tradition in which they’ve participated.


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