The first week in May–Louisville–Derby Week. If this is not the center of the universe, then it is at least the center of the sports universe. The town has been filling up for days. Some have been planning this trip for months. They probably have places to stay. Others are fly-by-night college students from afar. They do not know that every hotel within 30 miles is booked. They will probably end up staying precisely where they are when sleep finally overtakes them.
But they are all here for the same reason, for an event that has been going on for weeks but will ultimately climax with a mere two minutes–a frenzied, orgastic two minutes that will spin out for eternity. In that time one three-year-old horse will blitz over one and a quarter miles around the dirt track of Churchill Downs, over the finish line, and into history. He will be crowned the champion of the Kentucky Derby. His name will be forever emblazoned on all Derby ware, and prominently displayed at the track alongside his predecessors–all 131 of them, with names that trip off the tongue as if they were Knights of the Arthurian roundtable: War Admiral, Northern Dancer, Secretariat. No one knows who will be number 132–most money will probably be on Barbaro, Lawyer Ron, or Brother Derek–but whoever it is will for a moment be the most famous horse in the world.
Over 100,000 people will be at the Downs on Saturday, and millions more will see the Derby on television. Most will watch even as they try to figure out what exactly the event is about. It often appears to be little more than a gentrified spectacle: moneyed crowds and stars hobnobbing it with a betting stub in one hand, a mint julep in the other, and an impossibly large hat–gaudy, garish, grand–perched atop a figure so petite that she looks as if she might topple over the railing at any moment. Seer suckers, boaters, and bowties are there, too, all worn as if they’re the pinnacle style.
But go a few hundred yards from the grandstands, away from those iconic colonial spires, and there is a different story. The infield is where the ticketless masses congregate, where the college kids play second fiddle only to hedonism. Alcohol, gambling, nudity: You name it and you can have it. You don’t even have to look very hard. All it takes is money–and maybe some of those beads made famous by New Orleans’s Mardi Gras.
Indeed, the Derby is a spectacle, but, even if the infield would make the Earl of Rochester blush, there is much more to the event. With all the fuss about hats and celebrities–one goo-goo eyed employee of the Downs had spotters trying to find Jennifer Love Hewitt on Thursday–it’s easy to overlook the real reason for the festivities: those magnificent horsekings, whose strength is matched only by their grace. To have made it all the way to the Derby is no small feat: Around 35,000 thoroughbreds are born in the U.S. each year. At most, 20 will make it to the Derby, and only one will have his name carved into the paddock, where he will be immortalized. Over 1,000 people attended the funeral of the legendary Man o’ War; he was buried in an oak casket lined with his silk racing colors.
There is even an artistry to the gambling. Many people will bet their hunches, but the real betters will have been researching for months, if not years. They will have mastered the racing argot: the furlongs, the stalkers, the broodmare sires. They’ll be able to trace the records of all the trainers and the jockeys, and they’ll know bloodlines dating back generations and generations, some all the way back to the three 17th-century horses that gave rise to the thoroughbred. An 1830 law by the Kentucky association responsible for modern horseracing allowed “betting” at the racetrack, but not “gambling.” Betting on horses isn’t the flip of a coin; and when someone picks a winner, he better be man enough to back that up. But for all the slicing and dicing the only sure thing about betting on horses is that nothing is a sure thing. As the old saying goes, “Don’t believe all you hear on a race track, and only half of what you see.”
That is how it has always been: The history of the Derby–and horseracing in America–is so deep that it seems that it has always been here. The first horserace in America was in the 1600s. John Quincy Adams was in office when horseracing evolved into its current form. And Ulysses S. Grant presided when the first Kentucky Derby was held in 1875. Perhaps that long, rich history–its embedded nature–is the primary appeal of the Derby. Or perhaps it is the strange contradictions that are as old as the race itself. Or maybe it is just the visceral release of cheering for a horse.
Whatever it is, some things will never change. Even though this year’s race is sponsored by Yum!–the parent company of Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC–and musical guests include Better than Ezra and the Violent Femmes, there is no way to detract from the exhilaration of the races, from the bibulous mirth of the cheering crowd, and from the reserved grandeur of the horses as they saunter from the paddocks to the race track. There the sauntering ends as they file into the gates. There will be the metallic explosion of the gate opening and the hooves pounding the dirt. Then there will be those two minutes, where hopes and hunches can evaporate in a matter of seconds. Where the first three strides of the race, from zero to forty miles per hour, may determine the course of the event–or they may determine nothing at all. Two minutes. One hundred and twenty seconds. A moment. A lifetime.
–Alston B. Ramsay is an associate editor at National Review.