The Kentucky Derby: Epilogue


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↵The storyline of a horse bought for $9500 winning $1,417,200 is significant enough, especially when a bunch of self-described cowboys are the ones sitting stunned in their boots and bolo ties at the end of the race at their luck. (When the accountants calculate the return on investment, I'm pretty sure they just write the word "DAYUM" in the spread sheet and move along.)
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↵Calvin Borel breaking down in tribute to his parents as he crossed the line would be enough by itself. I sat on the rail--where you can feel the horses thump by--and listened to him howl and pump his fist on his victory parade along the grandstand rail. You couldn't understand what he was saying, mind you, but it all sounded very important and emotional to him. Later, watching him on television where you could hear what he was saying, it turned out to be both.
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↵All of this would be enough, but television cheats what the Kentucky Derby is on the ground. I hadn't been to one since 1980--when I was four--and I remembered little but the smell of cigars, bourbon, horseflop, earth, and the sight of people wearing clothes I'd only seen in old movies. I remembered that, and I remembered the intensity of the moment: screaming, color, and the overwhelming weight of the moment I couldn't even see because I wasn't tall enough to stare over the rail.
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↵Twenty-nine years later I got clubbed over the head with deja vu in a way I hadn't watching the Derby annually on television: it remains a singular event, an occasion, festival, carnival, ball, Mardi Gras on the mile and quarter, a 48 hour whirlwind of hats, booze, smoke, seersucker, and sundresses qualifying as a cultural event that just happens to focus on the Twelfth Race at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
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↵The shame of it all is how little television captures. It's probably not NBC's fault; the real scope of the Derby requires something more in the wheelhouse of the National Geographic Channel to get the full sprawl of it in a single frame. This singularity is what helps it as something people come back to every year, and hurts it on television: ultimately, what you see on the screen is a pittance compared to the color, absurdity, and intensity of what actually happens here.
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↵It's always a festival, and at times the festival features a riveting horse race capable of making grown men behave like spastic toddlers lunging after new candy. I watched a grown man elbow a little girl out of the way to get a better view of the leaders thundering by on the home stretch and hardly noticed because I was so completely focused on watching Mine That Bird screaming off the rail.
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↵Neither the guy or the little girl seemed to notice much, either. Both kept their eyes forward, following the streaking horses down the sloppy track. For two incendiary minutes, nothing else matters. And even though you lose jubilant chaos of the surrounding party, the simple immediacy of the moment is something that can't be lost in the translation to television.↵

This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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