The Kentucky Derby – James C. Nicholson

Received from Netgalley for review, thank you. Sports mean nothing in my life (unless you count jousting, which I do). I have watched part of one World Series – because I really, really wanted to see the Yankees lose – and one and an eighth Super Bowls (one of the coaches for the Giants is an old friend of the family (his late lamented mother-in-law was one of my favorite people in the universe)), and that was plenty. But horse racing? Oh, that’s different. That’s horses. I have loved horses since before I could say “I want”. I loved the Black Stallion novels; I knew horses backward and forward; of course I was going to watch the Triple Crown every year. (You might notice a certain connection between horseracing and jousting …)

I always pick a sentimental favorite. My horse always loses.

The only detraction for me following the horse-racing was always that widespread television coverage of the sport concentrated and concentrates almost solely on the Triple Crown races, so each year’s crop of three-year-olds appears on the first Saturday in May, race their hearts out three times over about a month, and exit, never to be heard of (by me) again. But when I watched every year the human personalities, especially the jockeys, were perennial, and I loved them. I learned how to pronounce Angel Cordero’s name correctly. I came to hero-worship Bill Shoemaker. And owners and trainers like Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas were part of my vocabulary – it’s all of it in my system.

(My most favorite person associated with the races, though, was Jim McKay. I compare every on-air personality covering the race with the late great Jim McKay – all unfavorably. Very. I adored him, and was furious when ABC lost the Olympics AND the Derby. And then Jim. I loved Jim McKay.)

The Kentucky Derby is not a history of the horses who have run, or the jockeys who have ridden them or the breeders who oversaw their conception or the trainer who put them under saddle or the owners who paid for them. It is, as it says on the cover, a history of the race itself. It is the story of how and why it came to be in 1875, and of how it came to be what it is today – the story not only of the Derby but, in a way, Kentucky itself as it presents itself to the nation. The book spends a remarkable amount of time, especially early on, tracing Kentucky’s image through whisky advertising – and rightly so: the imagery of Night Riders, belles, bourbon, horses, and pistols is inextricably linked with the Derby. From its first running the race never has been just a bunch of horses brought together to see which could run fastest – there have always been layers and politics and symbolism. The race has always been a microcosm of whatever issues are gripping the country at the time: racism, sexism, elitism; Prohibition, Depression, recession, war – it’s all affected how the race has been staged, and now and then the race has affected the issue, if only as another stage for demonstration.

Man o' War

Along with the story of Lutie Clark and Aristides and Colonel Matt Winn, the Hart-Agnew law and the politics of racing during wartime, I finally learned what pari-mutuel betting is. I learned why billiards is called pool, and why incredibly un-PC lawn jockeys are black, and the dynamics of the Kentucky colonel. (And, in wandering about, that the black-eyed Susans for the Preakness are … not; they’re daisies, with the centers painted, because black-eyed Susans are not in bloom in May.) (I still can’t believe the song lyrics to “My Old Kentucky Home” weren’t tweaked until 1986.) I learned why Man O’ War, one of the greatest racehorses who ever lived, passed on the Derby; exactly who a horse’s breeder is (I confess I never knew it); and why you probably never want your horse featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

As is generally appropriate for a biography, the author’s approach is journalistic, just-the-facts; any poetic flourish is left to occasional quotes. Passion for the sport or the event is sublimated into painstaking research and reportage. The detail of information varies, from a satisfying depth on the early years of Matt Winn and on the turbulent sixties to a few years for which the winning horse was barely mentioned, the jockey not at all. (I also felt that the later coverage – yes, featuring Jim McKay – deserved note, but beyond discussion of very early broadcasts on radio and television there was nothing.) There were a tremendous number of trails glimpsed but not followed – so many tales of horses and riders and trainers and stables and patrons and even the silly tradition of ridiculous hats left untold here. As each new disappointment came up – but I would love to know more about that – I had to keep reminding myself that this was a biography of the Derby, not those involved. And as such it is very well done. Leave ’em wanting more – I think Colonel Matt Winn would endorse that style.

In 1956 John Steinbeck wrote: “This Kentucky Derby, whatever it is – a race, an emotion, a turbulence, an explosion – is one of the most beautiful and violent and satisfying things I have ever experienced.” And so it is. And it is largely – almost entirely – due to Colonel Matt Winn that the romance and spectacle, the Old South and America in microcosm, vice and high-mindedness are so synonymous with the Derby, and that the Derby is such an event for the whole country – the world. He issued an invitation: he made it desirable to see, to be part of it, to experience the “emotion…turbulence… explosion” enveloped in a warm and welcoming layer of Old South imagery and ingenuous romanticized pseudo-Confederatism.

I didn’t watch the Super Bowl (despite the Giants playing again)(yay). I almost certainly won’t watch the World Series or the World Cup or Wimbledon. But on the First Saturday In May, you can bet money (the minimum $2 bet, if you like) that I’ll be in front of the TV. (Missing Jim McKay, as always.) And this year it the old familiar rituals will have a little more depth, a little more resonance: something I’ve always enjoyed will be a bit more enjoyable because of this book. Can’t ask for much more than that.
The Kentucky Derby Festival

~~Photos from Wikimedia

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