Absence of Kentucky Derby leaves hole in America’s sporting heart

They ran a virtual Kentucky Derby on NBC on Saturday afternoon, featuring electronic versions of the all-time great Derby horses. Secretariat nosed out Citation, which made a late charge on the rail.

When it comes to the Kentucky Derby, virtual doesn’t come close to reality. Trust me.

The virtual Kentucky Derby was run in lieu of the real Derby, which missed its annual first Saturday in May date and left another hole in the heart of sporting America.

There’s still a chance we’ll have a Kentucky Derby in 2020. The Derby has been postponed until Sept. 5 because of the coronavirus, which keeps alive the hope of the longest-running annual sporting event in the country. Every year since 1875, there’s been a Kentucky Derby.

Since 2007, a crew of my college friends have ventured to the Kentucky Derby in some form. What began as a barnstorming of the infield has gradually upgraded the same way in life you eventually trade Bud Light for an IPA or SoCo for Tito’s.

From sitting in the infield in Dale Earnhardt folding chairs purchased at Walmart to buying tickets in the grandstand and occasionally sneaking into the suites, figuring out how to navigate the Derby became emblematic of trying to navigate life in those late-20s post-college years.

Riders cross the finish line at the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 4th, 2019 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

I’ve been to 10 Kentucky Derbys. It may be nine. I’m really not sure. But I’ve been to enough of them that I’ve transitioned from the guy at the front of the betting line unable to put in a tri-wheel bet to the guy annoyed by the guy in the front of the betting line who can’t put in a tri-wheel bet. (The real horse-racing vets, of course, do all their betting work electronically. But I still feel like signing up for that TVG betting account is the rubicon a casual horse fan doesn’t want to cross.)

The first part of what hurt so much about a Derby-less first week in May was the calendar alerts. Marriott sent them out, reminding me of a Louisville hotel room that was canceled in late March. That quickly got trumped by the weather forecast of relentless sunshine and 82 degrees, as rain pelting down on Derby Day has become as expected as price-gouging at the concessions. (Local residents celebrated the Derby dressed up on their porches, a perfect communal celebration for a city that loves its horses.)

Rain has factored into the Derby 11 of the past 13 years. So when people ask me about making Mint Juleps, I counter that I’ve become more of an expert in rain ponchos and umbrella smuggling. (Mint Juleps are gross, by the way.)

Without a Kentucky Derby on this first Saturday in May, they ran the Arkansas Derby a few weeks after its normal post time. There were no fans. No frills. No winner’s circle. Just a tease of what we normally get on the first Saturday in May, but at Oaklawn Park instead of Churchill Downs.

A throng of the Derby crew – an unwieldy and constantly mutating group – got together in a Zoom on Saturday afternoon to toast our loss of the Derby and inevitable losses. About 20 people shuffled in and out from every corner of the country. Some familiar and some strangers, which is pretty much how the Derby works. We lost money by getting nosed out in the final Oaklawn to sink our Pick 5. I’d have been disappointed if the feeling wasn’t so familiar and comforting.

The pitter-patter of that unmistakable Derby verbiage came alive for a few hours.

“Speed is holding”

“Never leave the juicers off your ticket”

“Cashing is better than trashing”

“Run you pig.”

Fans are seen in the infield at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby day, Saturday, May 4, 2019, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

And, finally, after the end of the card at Oaklawn the temptation of the next race lurked. “The races in Japan start in 26 minutes.”

I learned that the new litmus test for middle-of-the-road racing degenerates is that they’re betting on races at Fonner Park in Grand Island, Nebraska. The elite degenerates on the call both realized they’d been betting on the same trotters in Sweden at 4 a.m. (“Was it the day it was snowing?” one asked. “Yes!” howled another.)

Anyone who has been initiated into the horse-racing world late in life realizes that it’s a bit like learning a new language with a minor in math. The “morning steam” – aka track gossip – starts every day. Learning about Beyer numbers, tri-boxes and Pick-4s is a bit like getting initiated into a club. By the time you leave the Derby and speak that language for three days, you go to Starbucks wondering if you can box your tea and cold brew.

A majority of the Kentucky Derbies I’ve attended, I’ve left overserved, light in the wallet and wet. Definitely wet. But I’ve yet to meet a horse player who only tells tales about his losses, which is why I’ll always remember leaving the 2011 Derby with so many hundred-dollar bills that I couldn’t close my wallet. Thanks, Animal Kingdom, which came home around 20-1.

(That brag should quickly be balanced by the reality of every gambler and horse player – the win that year at Churchill paled in the losses the three prior years when I left broke and wet. Always wet.

The buildup to the Derby is one of my favorite parts. The track on Wednesday is quiet, as the beers are still $6, the stands empty and the parking lot filled with the Dodge Darts. There’s less pretense than your average American bowling alley. By Saturday, it’s like Woodstock broke out on the grounds, the grandstands pulsating with Prada and stretch limos backed up for blocks to enter. The A-listers can all afford the $11 beers.

Fans in the stands celebrate before the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs Friday, May 3, 2013, in Louisville, Ky. Friday is Kentucky Oaks Day. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

The biggest misconception about the Derby is that it’s just one race. There’s typically a dozen races on the Thursday card, then Kentucky Oaks day on Friday and at least another dozen on Derby Day. (I’ve been told it’s easy to lose all your spending money before the Derby itself is run, so be careful about that.)

All those races and bets provide the buildup for the actual Derby, which is equal-parts ridiculous and wonderful. Every year, the goosebumps appear on demand when that bugle pierces the din for the “Call to the Post.” The months of planning, weeks of steam and days of drinks get channeled into those two glorious minutes.

The two races after the Derby are when Churchill Downs transforms back to what it’s like the other 51 weeks. The desperate gamblers place $500 show bets to cut into the losses about the same time the limos are pulling into the private airports.

Then it all ends, and Sunday morning feels like the day after college graduation. Everyone is overtired, hoarse, broke and facing the cruel reality of 51 weeks of Mondays until the next Derby. 

And, of course, once we dry out our clothing and blood stream, we always begin planning the next year’s reunion. Hopefully by next May, world order will be restored and we’ll toast not having to bet on races in Sweden and Nebraska. Most of us, anyway.

Revelers dive into a catch basin for rain water in the infield at Churchill Downs after a sudden downpour soaked the track during Kentucky Derby day festivities, Saturday, May 1, 2004, in Louisville, Ky. (AP)

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