05/02/2013 3:59PM

The Derby Demystified

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The above New Yorker cartoon, from the issue of April 13, 2013, was crafted by Bruce Eric Kaplan, better known to his readers as BEK and to "Seinfeld" fans as the writer of the 1998 episode "The Cartoon" when Elaine tried to pawn off a "Ziggy" caption as her own. It is being shared here to illustrate the fact that horses are never far from the creative imagination, and to help make the case that if the horse racing industry wants to cultivate widespread acceptance in the modern world of social and professional media it had better embrace the unique qualities that have served it well in the past. That's a long-winded way of insisting that it's all about the horse, the horse, the horse.

The horse is such an odd creature these days. Objectified by animal rights activists. Monetized by breeders. Mythologized by film makers. A few writers get it right -- Larry McMurtry, Jane Smiley, Bill Barich -- but for the most part, for most people the horse only comes to mind as a hazy combination of Mister Ed, the Black Stallion, Trigger and the last time they rode a merry-go-round. 

Then comes the Kentucky Derby, and the Thoroughbred elbows its way briefly onto center stage. With its narrow but intense window of exposure, the Derby turns horse racing into a high energy novelty act. Try as they might, the talented broadcasters with NBC, as well as the racing channels TVG and HRTV, can't possibly provide the context for casual viewers to appreciate what they are watching, beyond the giant crowd at Churchill Downs, in a town most people never will visit, along with peripheral trappings that increasingly seem to define the event.

Instead, we'll see racing references boiled down in places like the May edition of Harper's Magazine, in which the always enlightening Harper's Index included such tidbits as Facebook's $429 million federal tax refund compared to its $1.1 billion in profits, the time CNN gave to climate change during the 2012 election season (23 minutes) compared to Joe Biden's smile (43 minutes), and the rank of the United States among porn actor-producing nations (1). Hungary is No. 2. The last Index item read as follows:

"Percentage of horses in the 2012 Kentucky Derby that had the thoroughbred Mr. Prospector in their pedigree: 95. That had him their pedigree more than once: 55."

Lord knows where the editors got that or why they thought it was so intriguing, unless it was to suggest how incestuous the Thoroughbred breeding world has become, and to allow readers the latitude to wonder about the resulting fragility of the breed before turning the page.

The high-profile TV features this week with Rosie Napravnik on the CBS stalwart "60 Minutes" and Doug O'Neill on Showtime's "60 Minutes Sports" did nothing to move the dial one way or the other. At the end of the day Napravnik is a hard-working professional who appears to be exhausted with the whole "Girl in the Derby!" angle, and when she finally wins one she knows she'll have the same number as Stewart Elliott, Don Meade, Ron Franklin and Roscoe Goose. As for O'Neill, the piece with Armen Keteyian was a refreshingly cool-headed antidote to the hysterics of 2012, when the trainer was tagged as a cheat and treated as if he had taken a machete to the very foundations of the game.

I continue to be encouraged, though, when I run across a line from a magazine piece like this one by John McPhee, who has written about everything from the importance of the shad in American fishing culture to the deeper symbolism of a tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner. McPhee also wrote the article "Ruidoso" about the All-American Futurity, upon which the movie "Casey's Shadow" was based. Writing about the writing life, he was suggesting tricks to break free from writer's block: "You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than 30 inches around but could run nose-and-nose with Secretariat."

More to the point would have been a "60 Minutes" profile about what it takes for a horse to rise to the level of Derby consideration, in parallel with an Olympic athlete, or what life is like for the 19 or so horses who do not win the Kentucky Derby each year and still have a chance for stardom, or even a race between a bear and a Thoroughbred. Anything to shine the light where it belongs. There is comfort, however, in the knowledge that as this was being written on Thursday afternoon, the legendary broadcaster Dave Johnson was in a New York studio getting ready to record his annual rite of Kentucky Derby celebration for the Friday night edition of "The Late Show" with David Letterman. Always remember, when Johnson belts out "And down the stretch they come!" he's not asking you to stand and cheer for jockeys or trainers, or liquored up fans in funny hats. "They" are always the horses.

Gaye Goodwin More than 1 year ago
Oh, gee, soooooo interesting to see token blond Michelle "call" a race. Where do they come up with this drivel? How about the back story on the horses? Commentary about the preps? Do we have to watch stupid celebrity tricks when we tune in to the World Series? The Super Bowl? Then why dumb down the audience for the KY Derby? Aaaaaargh! At least they actually showed the Woodford Reserve this year...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
you say it's all about the horse. but from the perspective of the tracks officials / track owners ...essentially "the guy with the keys to the totalizer", isn't it really about siphoning larges amounts of money from the horse race bettors? this game is NOT about horses. it's about money. more specifically the manipulation of money into the pockets of horse track owners and track executives. If you believe that the track takeout is the "only" money they keep from the race pools, then you are gullible. Let me ask you a simple question: its Kentucky derby day. the total wagering handle will likely be over $ 70 million. If you were in charge of these massive pools of wagered money, and had final say over the posted toteboard payouts after each race... would you "only" keep a takeout of 20% ? or would you "adjust" the toteboard prices to be posted, so that you keep a little more. say like 50% or 60% ? The public doesn't know or participate in the price calculations, nor do they know "how many" winning tickets are held to affect the posted prices. Winning ticket holders are just watching the board to see what they get. it could be $ 500 or $ 5,000. they will still be excited to win something and won't question a thing. Track owners know this fact about horseplayers. So they do exactly what you would do, or I would do, if we were in charge of these pools of money for distribution. they skim it. They'd rather keep 60% of $ 70 million, than 20%. how bout you guys? Enjoy kentucky derby skimming day.
Mark Hartney More than 1 year ago
in the few minutes it took me to read this column i gained months worth of good reading. just ordered some smiley and barich (already have a ton of mcmurtry) and am going to track down the mcphee article. thank you JH for bringing your skill and intellect to this great sport.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
If only it could be that way again... And could we have PEB back also?
Rider717 More than 1 year ago
Always the horses. "There on tips of fair fresh flowers feedeth he. How joyous his neigh." Safe trips for all.
tinapclark17 More than 1 year ago
AWesome article - thank you!
Gaye Goodwin More than 1 year ago
I just can't wait for NBC to give us coverage of some celebrity chef or a fashion show of celebrity Derby hats, while they ignore the Woodford Reserve with Wise Dan, Slim Shady, and Point of Entry, but have broadcast rights so that NO ONE can see it...can't wait.
Kimberly Shugars More than 1 year ago
NBC couldnt cover a pile of manure with a tarp.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
NBC - Nuttin' But Crap
not impressed More than 1 year ago
I liked the telecast better when it was 90 minutes. NO fluff and better organized. I MISS those days.
Craig More than 1 year ago
I totally agree Gaye.The real race fans deserve so much better than the re treads that have been covering racing for way too long.That goes for Pincay III and C Oliveres.Newer faces only because of their fathers accomplishments they get air time.We might luck out this year.Maybe they won't disrespect a defending HOY and show that race.
Cool_Hand_Luke7 More than 1 year ago
Wow..how right you are. The horses themselves get almost no credit for what they do unless one wins the first two legs of the Triple Crown and is going for the sweep, or until a horse breaks down and is fatally injured. I mean just watch how Revolutionary handled his trip in the Withers this year! You can see what an athlete he is. Anyway, good article Jay!
Kimberly Shugars More than 1 year ago
Wonderful article Jay....And you're right, there would be no racing without the horse. Always wondered where the story of Caseys Shadow came from and now I know.
Mike B More than 1 year ago
When Rosie gets to the big infield CD winners circle she'll also have the same number as Pat Day, Jean Cruguet, Laffit Pincay Jr and Mario Gutierrez and will join Julie Krone in the sorority of Triple Crown race winners