Commentary: Kentucky Derby Echoes, 10 Years of a Circular Rhythm

Kentucky Derby 147 is just around the corner, and takes a look at the circular nature and history of this classic Thoroughbred event.
Kentucky Derby 147 is just around the corner, and takes a look at the circular nature and history of this classic Thoroughbred event.

The Asian Model of History appears to Westerners as a common circle. But it’s much more than that—deeper and more meaningful. At the top is the birth of life, and as you head south along that gentle righthand bend, time moves along, steadily, and unfolds by unleashing a bevy of experiences—wonder, pain, suffering, triumph, are just some feelings that come to mind.

And so it goes, to quote Vonnegut . . . with all the events in a people’s history, we find a beginning, a middle, and an end. At some point, we always come “full-circle,” as the wording dictates, and as in the Asian Model, return to the point of rebirth. Then we begin anew.   

When I think about the Kentucky Derby, I am reminded of the regularity, the symmetry, and over the past 10 years, the unbelievable range of emotions that we experience each year when it comes to this contest under the Twin Spires. This KYD, number 147, will get us back on track. Or at least it should . . . After the very first “DQ” in its storied past, coupled with that unmentionable media firestorm around Thoroughbred deaths at American racetracks, plus add in 2020’s COVID-19 global pandemic . . . All of that, and more, have all tested the sport’s mettle, much more than the Churchill Downs Inc. share price.

Like many, I tend to think of the Kentucky Derby, and the weekend it occupies, as something of an American cultural extravaganza—think Hunter S. Thompson’s ode to the Derby, if you know what I am speaking of. It is tied intimately to parties, get-togethers, or whatever other type of event that involves more than one human being in any given place at a time. COVID-19 drove this concept into hiding, to say the least. “First Saturdays in May” are synonymous with an emotional quality that brings people to watch, pick, and wager on the Derby. If you look at the past 10 years, the Derby memories flow just like previous groupings. The “decade” argument is a social construction, and not terribly scientific, just as historical dividing, say the 1960s from the 1970s, can be. However, it can be instructive.

For instance, the prior decade of the 2000s was the “Age of the Long Shot,” where boxcar prices flowed into burgeoning pools. We saw Giacomo (2005) and Mine That Bird (2009) gives us some major thrills, while Funny Cide (2003) and Smarty Jones (2004) caught the attention of the Nation with some “feel good stories.” While other celebrated trainers like Bob Baffert’s War Emblem (2002) and Carl Nafzger’s Street Sense (2007) solidified their greatness as multiple-winning conditioners of the “Run for the Roses.” I cannot leave off Barbaro (2006), who helped me cash my greatest score in the race, only to be summarily injured when he broke through the gate at the Pimlico in the Preakness S.

Recently, when I attended a festive function where I knew almost no one, I ran into this fellow who asked about my profession. I replied, “I am a writer.” He was intrigued, probing, “What kind?” Telling him I am a turfwriter that covers Thoroughbred racing, he beamed, “I’ve been to every Derby since 2008!” What followed was a series of sights and sounds from his experience at Churchill. It was an interesting tour that he provided. Not only could he name all the winners, but each time he mentioned one of them, an anecdote, an aside, or "a funny," was peppered in. Escapades and Jim McKay-speak was a central theme. It was all so comforting because you could fire back tidbits at him, and that made for an instant bond.

Whether it was remembering the excitement of the ownership group behind California Chrome’s run in 2014, Animal Kingdom’s impromptu score back in 2011, or the Bob Baffert Triple Crown runs during the decade with American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018), there is nothing like a shared cultural experience.

Once again, we are back on schedule for another KYD, this one is 147, in case you were not keeping track. Wagering looks to be at an all-time high, as we head towards engaging in the living of history and embracing the pageantry of a sport that has given us so much. The cyclical nature of the Derby that was interrupted last year is, in essence, a cause célèbre. Maybe that is what makes it so inviting, and such a leveling experience. The sights and sounds of the Kentucky Derby, reverberate across the decades, forming something familiar and comforting.

What we can hope for is a safe day, for all involved . . . Some beautiful weather, which may or may not happen . . . All the echoes that are part of what make the Kentucky Derby noteworthy will be on full display. Trainers, jockeys, owners, and all the rest are part of this milieu. The Asian Model of History informs us that through a birth and re-birth, that form will once again come back.

There is nothing common about these types of circles, as history marches on. What we uncover, if we look closely, are only points for reflection and the promise of a new 10-year rhythm.

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