My sister-in-law and her husband, Anne and Henry, good friends of ours, have made a tradition of watching the Kentucky Derby. Though Anne is quite a naturalist, and loves all animals, neither of them is a sports fan. But the Derby is nothing if not a social event, ripe with fashion, display, and partying. So our friends make their mint juleps, and then hunker down for the hour of televised pre-race ritual, and absorb the quick 2 minute, 2 second-long race.
I’ve never been much of a fan of animal racing, partly because it’s all so closely connected to gambling, and I was raised in a strong anti-gambling environment. In those days as now, much of the quotidian horse-racing action took place in the environs of New York City, Los Angeles, and Florida. We had local tracks in Massachusetts, as well as lots of greyhound racing (I liked to ask my cousin who owned “rescue” racing greyhounds if they ran around the house counterclockwise when she let them out). Kentucky, of course, had the one big Derby race dating back to 1875 in one form or another.
My image of racing was shaped by fictions and folklore: the Bill Monroe bluegrass song about an epic race between a California horse and a Tennessee horse, “”Molly and Tenbrooks”; the comic Spike Jones “William Tell Overture,” at the climax of which a frenetic horse race (briefly interrupted by a Joe Louis prize fight) is won by the 20 to 1 longshot, Feetlebaum; and the Frank Loesser musical Guys and Dolls (1955), with its bumptious “Fugue for Tinhorns” (“I got the horse right here / The name is Paul Revere / And here’s a guy who says that when the weather’s clear / Can do, . . .”). On top of that was one of my very favorite films of all time, The Sting, in which a crooked gambler is duped in an elaborate retaliatory scam involving betting on horse racing. So to me horse racing is kind of an absurd, sentimental piece of Americana that in real life attracts low-life, irresponsible petty criminals to it.
Despite all that, I actually ended up watching the Kentucky Derby this year, mostly because my wife wanted to listen to a bit more opera after our weekly Zoom virtual cocktails with Anne and Henry. Needless to say, it was most entertaining. Since I saw the pre-race interviews and the process of putting the horses into the starting gate, I had gained a clear sense of the colors of the favorites, and also the story of the 80-1 long-shot Rich Strike, who wasn’t even in the race until the scratch on Friday morning. But I also learned what his colors were.
As for the race itself, I was aided in understanding what I was watching by the many bike races I’ve watched on video. The view of the home stretch at the Derby was taken from much the same angle as a cycling sprint finish, looking back at the onrushing leaders from beyond the finish line with a long telephoto lens. In a sprint, a cyclist needs a “good line.” A “hole,” or an opening into which the sprinter can move, has to open up, or they’re blocked out. At the start of the Derby, the jockey had immediately gotten Rich Strike more to the inside, in the trailing group of horses. Rounding the last turn, still pretty far back, he maneuvered farther in to the rail. I saw a huge space open in front of him, with the two leaders duking it out slightly nearer the center of the track. All he had to do was move slightly to his right to pass one horse and he would be in the clear. I thought “he’s got a hole open if he’s fast enough to go through it.” And in that instant he found a “gear” that had eluded all the other horses. It was obvious from the rate at which he was closing and the distance to the line that he’d win if he kept that pace. And he did!
My experience as a video spectator of that race was wonderful. All that hoopla and analysis, and some nag who wasn’t even supposed to be in the Derby stole it away from all the fancy-dan favorites. Just sheer, wonderful, sports-fan amusement. I sure feel sorry for the local businessman who put a big chunk of money on the favorite Epicenter to win right before the race began. And I’d love to know who won the most money betting on Rich Strike, and how much. It was also interesting to see how wound up Rich Strike was after he won. They couldn’t get him under real control for several minutes. And equally, the owner, trainer, and jockey were, for all their elation at the victory, obviously as surprised and amazed as everybody else.
Now we learn that Rich Strike will not compete in the Preakness, the upcoming second race in the so-called “Triple Crown” of horse-racing. Probably a good move. Assess the real strength of the animal, and don’t allow him to be redefined immediately as what he probably is: a competitive but fairly ordinary horse who had a convergence of the right conditioning, the right jockey, and the right race situation to win on that one perfect Derby day.
©Arnold Bradford, 2022