Kentucky Derby Day: We can’t rest on our roses

The Kentucky Derby struts a fine line between the past and the future.

First run in 1875, it is America’s oldest continuous sporting event. It is the most famous horse race, the one every Thoroughbred owner wants to win. Some horsemen have spent careers, and much more than the $2 million purse, trying.

The Derby has become Kentucky’s global identity — second only to Kentucky Fried Chicken. Several years ago, I went to church with friends in a little town on the southern coast of Australia. As we were introduced to the priest on our way out, he asked where we were from. When I replied, “Kentucky,” his face lit up and he said, “Ah, the Kentucky Derby!”

Matt Winn, the P.T. Barnum of early 20th century horse racing, put the Derby on the map. Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson helped keep it there with his alcohol-fueled essay about aspects of the Derby that can be “decadent and depraved.”

As we prepare for the 136th running of this two-minute horse race, it is worth pausing to ponder the Kentucky Derby’s mystique and what will keep it alive.

The Derby is, of course, tied to the fortunes of horse racing, whose popularity has been in decline for a generation. Many blame the industry for focusing too much on gambling revenue and too little on attracting new fans to the sport’s excitement and pageantry.

A few years ago, the public seemed to be losing interest in the Derby itself; television ratings hit bottom in 2000. That was a wakeup call for Churchill Downs, which invested big bucks in new facilities and worked harder to attract celebrities who weren’t already has-beens when today’s young potential racing fans were born.

NBC took over the Derby TV contract from ABC in 2001 and ratings began to climb. Last year, ratings were their best since 1992, making the Derby the second-most watched American sporting event after the Super Bowl. This year, Churchill Downs and NBC are trying to build public excitement with “Road to the Kentucky Derby” telecasts of prep races.

NBC realized that nearly half of the Derby’s TV viewers are women, most of whom wouldn’t know a furlong from a trifecta. NBC and its Bravo network feature Derby content aimed at them: fashion, food and celebrities.

Churchill Downs and NBC now understand that the Derby can’t coast on its reputation. Nothing can. The Derby must constantly be renewed and reinvented. It must preserve tradition while at the same time making Southern charm hip and sophisticated. In short, the Derby must be special.

After all, name another sporting event where tens of thousands of male spectators willingly dress up — in pastels! What other event of any kind gives a woman the excuse to buy and wear a big, bodacious hat?

Beyond Churchill Downs’ gates, Derby Day is to Kentucky what St. Patrick’s Day is to Ireland. It is the one day each year when people who ordinarily couldn’t care less about Kentucky or horses look to see who is running, pick a favorite (probably based on its name) and maybe even place a bet.

It is the day when Kentuckians living elsewhere get homesick and throw a party. They cook burgoo and hot Browns and do something they know is just, plain wrong: they contaminate bourbon with sugar and mint.

Derby Day is about keeping a mostly mythical past alive, the present fresh and fun and the future one where people like that priest I met in Australia can hear the word Kentucky and instinctively say, “Ah, the Kentucky Derby!”



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