For the horses, the Kentucky Derby means opportunity. They may not know it but it represents one of the big chances of a lifetime to become famous and admired—and to ensure a retirement of luxury and splendor, holding court to the finest broodmares in the land. Even in a nonvintage year the winner acquires a certain aura. His bloodlines, though perhaps regarded as unfashionable before the race, are thenceforth respected.
For the owners and trainers, the Derby suggests nervous breakdown. Honest Pleasure's trainer, LeRoy Jolley, is seriously thinking of starting a campaign to demand that this and the other Triple Crown races be held at noon. "Dragging them out until early evening is cruelty to humans," he says.
But what about the spectators, the fans? Is the Derby a horse race? Or is it a happening? Or a little of both? Certainly it is a happening. Though there will be many horse people and dyed-in-the-wool racing fans at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, there will also be a lot of spectators who never saw a horse race before and may never see one again. As at the World Series, some of the best seats will be occupied by prominent people who never turn out during the regular season and have only a vague idea of what the sport is all about.
Indeed, many of the spectators won't even see the race. Or, crowded into the infield or on the grandstand apron, they will catch only a brief glimpse as the horses speed past them, too fleeting to identify. To provide better vantage points for all the people who are irresistibly drawn to this annual springtime ritual, Churchill Downs would need stands around the entire perimeter of the track, like the dog courses in London.
But never mind. One need not see the race. One need not even have a taste for mint juleps. There is something about just being there, about being a part of thoroughbred history.
I was last there in person in 1937 to see War Admiral win. That is, I think I saw him. I was standing on the apron along with what seemed to be jillions of other history lovers. The heads miraculously parted for an instant and I saw a brown streak over on the backstretch. The horse seemed to be in front. It just had to be War Admiral. Or so at least I will tell my grandchildren.
Every springtime since, I get the itch. Unfortunately, I always seem to be too busy in early May, frequently far from Louisville. I try to console myself with thoughts of the traffic, the parking problems, the standing in those long lines at the betting windows. Once I worked up some sour-grapes sort of statistics: there seems to be a 40% chance of rain in Louisville on Derby Day; there is a 17% chance the temperature will be below 60, pretty chilly for a long day in the open. One year the temperature was 42 and it rained. Wasn't I lucky to be among the missing?
But why try to kid myself? That cold rain pelted Derbygoers in 1948, the year the Calumet entry of Citation and Coal-town ran one-two on the sloppy track. I had seen Coal-town at one of the New York tracks and he was the fastest horse I had ever laid eyes on. Indeed, he may have been the fastest horse that ever lived, as far as he could carry his speed. I was rooting for him that day; I was sorry Citation passed him in the last quarter-mile. Still, Citation proved himself an even greater horse. I wish I could tell my grandchildren I was there.
But even on television the Derby is a happening. I've watched it in a living room in California, with a host who never had a bottle of bourbon in the house any other day of the year, yet lovingly fashioned mint juleps—and guests who knew nothing about horses or the South got all misty-eyed when the band played My Old Kentucky Home. I've watched the Derby in hotel lobbies, in company with strangers who just wandered in from the street to catch the race.
While watching it I have held tickets in innumerable office pools. I sometimes marvel at how many of these informal mutuel pools there must be around the nation on Derby Day—at parties, in college dormitories, maybe even in garden club meeting rooms. Is my experience unusual, or as I suspect is the winner usually someone who on any other day of the year considers gambling foolhardy if not downright immoral and who has to be told which horse won the race?