Pausing for Kentucky Derby reflection

Since I wasn’t born into racing, my first exposure to the sport was the same as it is for many others in United States – via a televised broadcast of the Kentucky Derby. I started taping the race in the late 1980s (using the most current technology: the VCR) before I ever dreamed of any job, let alone a job at the racetrack.

Years later, the Belmont Stakes’ proximity to my home in New York made it my Triple Crown event of choice. Working for The New York Racing Association (NYRA) formalized that affiliation, and the racing calendar generally conspired to keep me in the Empire State when the other two races were run. Viewing the races on television took on new significance. While I watched the Derby, I wondered if the victor had any shot to become racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner, and the Preakness Stakes broadcast always provided the answer.

Attending my first Derby this past weekend brought me back to my roots in the sport from a different perspective. The event that I had idolized as a child was there before me in living color. The hats were bigger, the spires were smaller, and the infield was more boisterous and less appealing in person. It was familiar, but different. 

It was different because I knew it, I knew the players, and I knew the game. When I watched Sea Hero on TV in 1993 (for some reason that year stands out in all my memories of watching the race as a kid), I’d never seen the backstretch of a track or touched an actual racehorse. Coming to the Derby in 2014, I had real rooting interests in New York horses, animals whose records were familiar from watching them – live! – and whose connections I had interviewed and talked with many times on a smaller stage.

Knowing the game also means knowing its imperfections, and in that sense, I’ve also learned a lot since 1993, and a lot in the first five months of 2014. Racing can be a tough sport to love, and, at times, an unbearable one to watch. As an adult working in racing, some of the things that enamored me as a child are now a source of frustration, where “tradition” can be a euphemism for inefficiency and the absence of progress. Through the very same lens I came to love racing – media – I can see others in America growing to hate it, believing the portrayals that it is crooked and cruel. 

Probably because it is so cyclical, racing possesses a seemingly innate ability to just move on, which I view as both as strength and a weakness. No time to dwell on past failures, but time to learn from past failures, or to really savor the successes. There is always another race on which to focus, and that brings me back to the Kentucky Derby.

For everything American racing has endured in recent months and years, the Derby brings it all to a halt. This year, the storylines did not disappoint: An improbable California-bred favorite with a modest pedigree, a 77-year-old trainer who had last attended the race in 1955 as an exercise rider for the great Swaps, racing partners who chased a cheap and unlikely dream to the winner’s circle on the sport’s biggest day. Racing never stops, but the Kentucky Derby makes it pause.

Attending the race in person momentarily returned me to a time before I knew anything about it. No thought about whether the winner could or would go on, no reflection on the sport’s troubles, nor speculation about the effect the winner might have on them. The race was reduced again to the walkover, twin spires set against blue sky, and roses. Standing on the track and hearing the roar of nearly 165,000 people as the field turned for home was, in a sense, like watching it on TV.

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