This Saturday, the First Saturday in May, is my favorite day of the year, because it’s Kentucky Derby Day--my favorite sporting event.
The day overflows with the trifecta of drinking, gambling, and sporting excellence. There’s nothing more exciting than a horse race, especially this one--there’s a reason they call the Derby “the greatest two minutes in sports.”
The event oozes tradition, charm, and over-the-top revelry. It’s the premier, number one, most famous horse race in America, run under the famed Twin Spirals of Churchill Downs; for folks who only watch one horse race per year, or can only name one horse race, it’s the Kentucky Derby. It’s the North Star guiding everyone in the business, the lighthouse everyone in the industry sails toward; for anyone involved in horse racing, the first question they always get is whether they’ve had a horse in the Derby. Like the Masters or Wimbledon, it’s so much more than simply a sporting contest; it’s iconic, and the Derby is a quintessential piece of Americana.
It’s been run every year since 1875. Many other venerable events, like the Derby’s Triple Crown partners, the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, and things like the U.S. Open, Masters, and Indy 500, took breaks during wars--but not the Derby.
According to James C. Nicholson’s “The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses became America’s Premier Sporting Event,” “The Kentucky Derby was a rallying point for Americans at home and abroad. It was the Kentucky Derby’s considerable cultural clout that enabled...the Derby to continue...The Derby had reached such a stature, and continuity was perceived to be such a significant piece of the popular appeal of the event.”
In the boxes, especially the vaunted “Millionaires Row,” it’s the apotheosis of antediluvian Southern propriety. It’s men in seersuckers, and women in baroque hats--the opulent hats alone are worth the price of admission--and draped in the single most-flattering garment a women can ever wear, the divine sundress. No women, no matter how breathtaking, is not improved exponentially by putting on a sundress.
The infield, on the other hand, is Sodom and Gomorrah. The booze, flowing like a damn burst, fills innumerable cups of the famed Mint Juleps--which are awful, by the way. A julep is basically just straight Kentucky bourbon. At the Derby, the saying goes, “The first one is terrible, the second one isn’t much better; by the third, who cares?”
Having been there, I can tell you it’s Mardi Gras in May, a carnival of carnal delights that would make Caligula blush. Morals, mores, and any sense of decency are set aside for this bacchanalia. Anything goes in this whirlwind of depravity, and the anarchy translates to a rough day for both livers and wallets.
It all begins at daybreak, although, for many, the party has already begun Friday on Oaks Day. Slowly, the tension mounts, until, finally, the fervor reaches a palpable, fevered pitch with the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home.” In the morass of debauchery, the one moment of heartfelt poignancy is Stephen Foster’s ode. As the horses parade, all the fervent activity ceases as everyone sings along, many rhythmically swaying, even more crying--all, including the jockeys, undeniably moved at that moment. Larry Collmus, the new Churchill Downs track announcer who will also call the race for NBC, said he won't listen to the song, because he knows it'll cause him to break down and distract him from his task. It’s the unadulterated goosebumps moment of the day. Only one class of people remains untouched. Who, you ask? Well, they don’t refer to the song as the “Hymn to Pickpockets” for nothing. With everybody’s attention diverted to the track and the song, it’s high times for the most unscrupulous rapscallions in the crowd.
And then, it’s time to make final bets, with everyone--from the tipsy debutantes in sundresses who made their selections based on names and colors, to the calloused, step-over-a-guy-with-a-heart-attack-so-you-don’t-get-shut-out-at-the-window veterans--utterly convinced they hold the winning ticket.
Finally, 20 three-year-olds, most of whom have never run the classic distance of 10 furlongs, and none of whom have run in front of a crowd this big--in excess of 150,000--perform the most important act they’ll ever do, running in the Derby. Imagine that, having the biggest moment of your life at such a callow age! Most races are run with 8-12 horses, so, with 20 (19, this year), it’s often more bumper cars than horse race--a cavalry charge where luck plays a paramount factor.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the “Run for the Roses” (the winning horse is draped in a blanket of roses) has also been the subject for two of the finest pieces of sportswriting, Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” and “Kentucky: May: Saturday,” William Faulkner’s 1955 ode in Sports Illustrated.
There’s a reason Irwin S. Cobb, a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist with more than a million readers, said, “Until you go to the Kentucky Derby ... you ain’t never been nowhere and you ain’t never seen nothin’.” And that was in 1930, before the extravaganza became the out-of-control hullabaloo it has grown into today!
This year's race is slated for 5:24 CST on NBC, but coverage goes basically all day. It starts at 11 a.m. on NBCSN, with the Peacock picking up coverage at 3 p.m. CST.
My two top picks were Wicked Strong and Hoppertunity, but the former is marooned in post 20, and the latter has been scratched with an injury. I'll still use Wicked Strong--who closed like a freight train barreling down the center of the track to win the Wood Memorial--just not with as much gusto as I would've had he drawn better. One must use California Chrome, who will be a prohibitive favorite; he's the best horse on paper, and he's been dismantling fields this year, but I have my doubts about his breeding. He's cheap, and his damside pedigree says he won't want the 10 furlongs. Plus, favorites rarely win the Derby, and I do wonder how much his sensational win in the Santa Anita Derby took out of him. Will he bounce off that race?
I also wanted to use Vicar's in Trouble, because his wins have impressed me, but he drew the one post, which is death in this race, and the fact he has Rose Napranvik on his back means he won't be nearly the price he should be; you see, with a female jockey, he'll attract all sorts of money (the KY Derby is the only annual sporting event watched on TV by more women than men).
So, along with the favorite and Wicked Strong, I'll use Medal Count (who ran impressively in two races at Keeneland recently, and has a superb trainer, Dale Romans, who is telling people this colt is his best chance at capturing at Derby), Commanding Curve (a one-run closer who needs a pace meltdown up front but may get it here and will be a huge price), and Candy Boy (who made perhaps the most breathtaking move I've seen in 2014 by a three-year-old in a race earlier this year and is ridden by my favorite big-race jockey, Gary Stevens; that move tells me there's brilliance in him, and he bombed last time out in the SA Derby behind California Chrome, which will improve his price for this race). California Chrome and Wicked Strong will be favorite and maybe second-choice, but those latter three I mentioned are 20-1, 50-1, and 15-1, respectively--that's where one can make some money. Good luck to all!