05/02/2013 3:59PM

The Derby Demystified


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.