THE MIGRATORY URGE
It is a most unusual pageant, that pilgrimage to the Kentucky Derby, as anyone can tell you who has watched that annual march to the overgrown and growing town of Louisville. It is also a commentary on the American way of life, not that anyone who goes to Louisville has this on his mind. First, there are the stable owners and their friends, arriving in private cars in the wake of their stables. (It is said that the Texas private car had its own jazz band this year.) Then there are the socially addicted people who like horses and antisocial people who like horses and, finally, the professionals who move from track to track, the trainers, the jockeys, the exercise boys and the grooms, the professional gamblers and the touts, and with them the criminal and eccentric fringe, and on their heels come the betting operators, the police and the investigators of the Bureau of Internal Revenue. Factually there is everybody from everywhere in Louisville on the day of the Derby, and it is hard to explain the urge that brought them. Indeed it is hard to explain the urge of any migration, but people do move in odd ways and usually in cohesive groups. Take, for instance, the masses of young advertising executives headed by Mr. Robert Lawton, who now are beginning to dominate the locker rooms at Happy Knoll.
The truth is that horse racing is an incongruous survival in the present age, now that the democratic horse we used to know is no longer a means of locomotion or an integral part of our economy. There has never been anything democratic about race horses, because the very theory of horse breeding is wholly at variance with egalitarian dogma. Many political sociologists who believe that heredity amounts to nothing and that character can be altered by environment are achieving great popular success, but the racing world is still out of touch with this avant-garde thinking. A lot of fun is poked annually at individuals whose names are permitted to appear in the Social Register, but what about the stud book? No horse is allowed in the Derby or any other well-regulated race who cannot trace his descent to one of three fortuitous ancestors, the Darley Arabian, the Godolphin Barb and the Byerly Turk, all stallions exported from the neighborhood of the Sahara and acquired by Roger de Coverley types of British sportsmen in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The Godolphin Barb, it is said, was accidentally discovered while pulling a cart in the streets of Paris, a humble beginning for famous lineage, but then all ancestors have to start somewhere.
The business of horse racing is not very democratic either and can seldom be engaged in by the average individual. It is true that Count Chic, who ran against Needles, is owned by a restaurateur from the Northwest, but the other competitors in the seventh race came from what you and I, Albert, as Republicans, might term a sound financial background, a situation that still seems to exist in certain parts of the country, particularly in the vicinity of the Texas oil rigs. Needles' owners, incidentally, are oil men. In short, horse racing is and always has been an expensive and an artificial sport. Why does it remain immensely popular in a day when the horse is an anachronism?
Why is it, for that matter, that the Kentucky Derby has become an American institution? By the day of the race, Louisville is an overcrowded city. There are better tracks than Churchill Downs and better hotel accommodations near them. One might, I believe, be less conscious of certain obvious discomforts if the track management could arrange to do something about the juleps. I am sorry to bring up this subject again, but I do wish that Old Ned could be sent down here from the men's bar at Happy Knoll to spike them with his customary generosity. The white buildings and the grandstands have an antiquity that makes more for charm than for comfort. In fact, arrangements are such that about a third of the patrons paying admission never have more than a glimpse of the race and many in the center field see none of it; and others are content to watch the electric board in the clubhouse courtyard by the paddock and to listen to the roar of the crowd beyond. There are varied tastes in any crowd, even when it shares a common interest. To go a step further, most trainers will tell you that there are better races and better tests of horseflesh than the Derby. The crowded field, for one thing, leaves too much to chance. Luck becomes greater than skill and stamina when the horses approach the first turn. And yet the Derby remains one of the greatest sporting events extant, and a Derby winner is different from other winners.
LONG THOUGHTS, SHORT DRINKS
The reasons for these things are so complicated and subtle that many of them pass undiscovered through the sieve of analysis. They are as difficult to isolate as the causes that lie behind another phenomenon one encounters in Louisville, a city which, among its other activities, distills our finest bourbon. It is said that the best water to put in the distillers' mash comes from a subterranean river that flows several hundred feet beneath the bed of the Ohio, but no one can tell just why this water makes good distilled spirits. A great deal of the Kentucky Derby too lies underground, far beneath the observable actions and eccentricities of its far-flung patrons. A great deal of its secret of success rests deep in the group subconscious and in group participation, and much more of it depends upon a great collective belief approaching wish fulfillment. This is a belief that derives from a common enthusiasm shared by everyone who passed through the turnstiles—the love for the running horse and the conviction that a horse in motion is the most beautiful thing in life.
But there—I must not start to preach, especially after the slender alcoholic allowance permitted by the Churchill Downs juleps. In all fairness I must admit they let you take the glass home with you, but I have broken mine already. Indeed I have only time to sum up briefly. I am sorry I lost my money and yours. I know what you are going to say. I should have put it on Needles as you advised in the beginning. Well, why don't you try him yourself sometime? He is due to appear at Pimlico and also, I suppose, at Belmont, but I still don't like his attitude.