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The Kentucky Derby is a palpable vestige of post-war antebellum yearnings, a gripping continuum defiantly nurtured and fiercely defended.
Layers of a State Fair onion growing for 145 years, 146 after Saturday.
And I have a decision to make. Pour me an Old No. 7.
There are really very few singular sporting days in America. Forget ball or puck sports. They've ruined the Daytona 500, where having the fastest car counts for nothing now. In 2020's Indy 500, they let the race whimper to a finish instead of responsibly throwing a red flag and restarting. The Iditarod dogs, without snow anymore, are sometimes drugged. The Super Bowl might be one, but only because the nation spends two harried weeks bathing in its hype: Oh for such unity on COVID-19!
The two days of the Breeders' Cup takes that long only because it needs to spread out so many good races. It is, an event.
One of the most hallowed, the Masters, is played in an unreal Eden that has nothing in common with its outside-the-wall environs. It's a lot like the Derby. Latitudes under about 37.5 pop to mind.
But this Kentucky Derby (Grade I, 10 furlongs dirt, 1-1/4 miles, $3,000,000, no fans), pushed to Labor Day by way of the virus, is already one of the most interesting and should be the most educational installment I've ever seen. Little of it has to do with the race.
Forget the headline, but the New York Times' Joe Drape rounds out the hook of Greg Harbut in this year's race. He's an owner of the 11 horse, Necker Island. Harbut is Black.
But wait, Harbut's great-grandfather Will was the stallion supervisor of none other than Man o' War. His grandfather, Tom, owned a horse, Touch Bar, that ran in the 1962 Derby, but because of Jim Crow, Tom was not allowed to sit in the stands at Churchill Downs back then.
The next Derby runner with a black owner, Shirley Cunningham Jr., was Curlin in 2007. Look at the gaps: 1962/2007/2020. There's no time now to go over the distribution of wealth to explain the dearth of black owners at the highest levels of racing.
Let's remind ourselves about the Black jockeys, who won 15 of the first 28 Derbies. Oliver Lewis won the first in 1875 on Aristides. Isaac Murphy, Alonzo Clayton, Willie Sims, Jimmy Winkfield, who won two in a row and was the last black jockey to win a Derby. 1902. Winkfield ended up bouncing around Europe and landing in Russia for a spell. He was appreciated there. In season, all these guys rode the Chicago circuit, where the money was the best.
For 79 years up until 2000, no black jockeys rode the Derby.
Surely, Harbut received even a few calls to boycott the race, but that would be ridiculous.
"My grandfather bred (Touch Bar) and owned part of him and, at the time, his role in what is one of the most prestigious races in the world was not acknowledged," Harbut said. "This is part of my family's legacy, and it is a chance to remind people on a big stage - the biggest stage - that horse racing history here begins with African Americans."
Although he looks way overmatched, what if Necker Island wins?
Louisville freelancer Josh Wood in the Washington Post, let the outsiders talk about how Churchill Downs, the behemoth that must surely cast a large shadow, shapes their community and how they see it.
"Most people in the African-American community sort of look at that Derby thing as a time for richer, Caucasian members of the city to have a good time, spend their money and enjoy life," Yashia Crawford, 38, said at a recent protest where dozens of people were arrested.
That doesn't even include the thousands of people coming from other places for the race.
"What I don't understand is how the city thinks we just go to some celebratory event while this city is hurting," said Black poet and activist Hannah Drake, 44, who lives near the track. "To just go on like that didn't happen, to me is a slap in the face."
Louisville, like so many places, seems a tale of two cities: Churchill Downs and the University of Louisville, and then all the rest. Breonna Taylor lived with the rest. Whatever her address, she lived far away from the half-acre hats, deer-in-the-headlights QBs, straw fedoras and cigars, and sweetened bourbon sludge the occupy the minds of many.
Then, there are calls to ashcan the playing of "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!" as the post parade begins. There have been conflicting interpretations of the song since the day it was written by Stephen Foster in 1853, but you can't deny the romanticization of empty social echoes that will not be acknowledged, understood or dealt with.
When the Kentucky legislature approved it as the state song in 1928, it replaced "darkies" in the lyrics with "people." Even today, we see the zeitgeist still runs real deep. Wow.
For its efforts, Churchill Downs Inc. continues its typically brilliant PR and media spins. It's very good at it.
CDI holds out hope it will cancel the song, but it doesn't say say it will. CDI says there's "not a more moving experience for both spectator or participant." Um, ok. I don't believe Churchill will cancel the song. But you might ask, will NBC play it if they do play it? Although CDI probably has a lot of clout into race day programming.
How important is such a song? Maybe the folks down there will have to hash it out, but as Churchill has made the Derby national, if not global, at least some of it might be out of its hands.
There will be protesters outside, and NBC's news and sports divisions promise they will cover it both days. I just envision protesters marching in front of gates they never have entered and never will penetrate, and the frustration of not being listened to.
That's why I call this year's Derby interesting and educational. Will racing, Churchill Downs in particular, be able to demonstrate in any way that it is listening, or that it will do something? Does it even have the will for such things? Louisville is one of the many American epicenters of dialogue so critical; the whole damn thing looks like it could go over the rail.
Will NBC push, and I mean HOUND CDI CEO Bill Carstanjen for answers? Will they push, hard, for Louisville's politicians to speak truth to the relationship between the people and the neighborhoods, and the horse track that looms as large as an unreachable Oz?
I believe Churchill pushed the Derby to Labor Day on the hunch bet it could have fans. The shadow of the wire has risen and set since the first Saturday in May, or early June, so I'll get off that.
Keep in mind: the handle. Sure, on-track handle is gone, but most of those people will still bet from afar. Churchill waffled on the crowd. No fans/23,000 fans/No fans. As it should be. They'll make money.
Now, decision time.
All of the important issues orbiting this Derby have made it easy. I won't be wagering on any races from Churchill on Friday or Saturday. And there will be some great races. The Kentucky Oaks will be the race of the weekend. With what CDI has planned for Arlington Park, the way it conducts itself, its depth of indifference for racing itself, I will not stuff its coffers.
I will certainly watch every minute of Churchill coverage (NBCSN Friday, the big NBC Saturday). TrackNotes will report, but it also has to live with itself.
Full disclosure, the Saratoga air bags will deploy with state breds Friday and a sweet card Saturday highlighted by The Woodward. I know you're happy to hear I'll have action.
As for the Derby itself, 3-5 favorite Tiz the Law, from the 17 post, appears, on a normal day, unbeatable. Before you say "He's a GREAT horse," and while he has been visually impressive, who has he beaten? I'm on the side that none of these other three-year-olds are really any good. Now, if the 17 door doesn't open . . . After all, it's a brand new starting gate.
In many ways.
Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.
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Posted on Sep 21, 2020