The state of the Derby
Colorful mosaic will be renewed at Churchill Downs. But 50 years after Secretariat blazed his way into America’s heart, racing’s underbelly is showing.
One of the iconic spires frames fleet Thoroughbreds at Churchill Downs. (Photo by Tom Eblen)
Fifty years ago, when Secretariat set track records winning the Kentucky Derby and the Triple Crown and made the cover of Time magazine, horse racing in America mattered.
The narrative — for the sport, the industry, one of its major tracks and its signature event — is different now and defined more by change, controversy and cultural reassessment than a beloved and heroic horse.
Start with the signature event. When it’s run at Churchill Downs in Louisville for the 149th time Saturday, the Kentucky Derby’s usual mosaic — 20 horses and 160,000 people; big-hatted women and money-clipped men; pre-mixed juleps; internet celebrities on a red carpet; condomed infielders; William Faulkner reverence and Hunter S. Thompson depraved hustle — will be evident.
But framing that familiar scene, the brick-and-mortar transformation of Churchill Downs will be unmistakable. The focal point this year is a $90 million “First Turn Experience” that replaces temporary structures with a soccer stadium-sized facility with permanent seating and a hospitality club. It’s the second phase of a capital project that last year resulted in a $45 million “Homestretch Club” that replaced outdoor bleachers with stadium seats, lounges and a 95-foot long bar and next year will feature the completion of a $200 million paddock redesign.
The project builds on more than two decades of previous changes, including a $121 million clubhouse and grandstand renovation; new owners’ suites; and a private VIP area with Derby seats listed on online sites at $30,000 plus. The track’s iconic (and trademarked) twin spires remain, but increasingly as a stand-alone in a corporate mise en scène that reflects Churchill Downs Inc. and its position as a nationally leading racing, online wagering and gaming entertainment company.
Not a good look for racing
Though it’s not just about one horse race — or even racing — anymore, Churchill has found itself in the middle of racing-related problems and controversies. The most notable of them is the track’s protracted, nationally-publicized battle with Bob Baffert, arguably the sport’s highest profile personality. The dispute began in 2021 when Medina Spirit, trained by Baffert, finished first in the Derby but failed a drug test and was disqualified. Baffert, who in the last few years has had other top horses show post-race positives, and owner Amr Zeden sued the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, claiming the drug in question, betamethasone, had been administered legally and had not affected their horse’s performance.
Medina Spirit collapsed and died of an apparent heart attack following a workout at Santa Anita Park in California in December 2021. Early last year, the Racing Commission upheld the disqualification and suspended Baffert from training for 90 days. Churchill then banned Baffert from its tracks for two years. Baffert sued Churchill over the ban, but this February a federal court in Louisville denied his request for an injunction and dismissed all but one of his claims.
The case isn’t a good look for racing, Churchill or the Derby. It underscores the current state of American racing, a once-popular sport long in need of life-support, with a shrinking and aging fan base, marginal media coverage and competition from casinos, lotteries and sports betting. (Kentucky earlier this year became the 37th state to legalize sports betting. The law, which takes effect at the end of June, allows race tracks to operate sports betting facilities.)
Secretariat’s popularity gave racing a short-term lift, but in the decades since he passed, numerous drug scandals and on-track horse deaths — including four this week at Churchill Downs, one involving a horse training for the Derby — have exposed the sport’s underbelly.
The extent of the problem was highlighted by a 2020 indictment of 27 people (four others were added later) on federal charges connected to the use of performance-enhancing drugs on racehorses. Among them were prominent trainers Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis (whose Maximum Security finished first in the 2019 Derby but was disqualified for racing interference). Both pleaded guilty. Navarro is now in prison and Servis will be sentenced this month.
In response to these situations and following years of support from and lobbying by industry and outside groups — from the The Jockey Club to PETA — Congress in 2020 authorized the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) to develop and implement a national, uniform set of safety and anti-doping and medication rules. After some legal challenges, HISA is set to take full effect in most states later this month.
As a piece of Americana, the Derby had largely been immune to racing’s decline and troubles and had been instead its city on a hill, with overflow attendance, record betting handle ($179 million last year) and an international brand. The Baffert/Medina Spirit case, and its association with the pervasive problems that triggered HISA, has punctured that immunity and moved the race’s — and Churchill’s — image closer to the industry mean.
Horse race as socio-cultural Rorschach test
A comparable shift has occurred on the Derby’s cultural front. Since Churchill’s long-time impresario and later president Matt Winn (who made a cover of Time magazine in 1937), molded it into a bucket-list event a century ago, the Derby has been widely seen as a rite of spring, loved or hated, in and outside of Kentucky. But what was accepted as a bacchanal and fodder for literature, lore and journalism seems to be morphing into a contemporary socio-cultural Rorschach test.
Last year, for example, the Lexington Herald-Leader, the state’s second-largest newspaper, ran a full front-page story headlined “Does the Kentucky Derby still matter?” The story consisted of two in-house opinions. A sports reporter, citing tradition and impact, said it does. The paper’s editorial writer, citing the Baffert case and drug scandals, called the event “an acquired taste” that matters mostly to “a small group of rich people and a large group of drunk people.”
Along similar lines, there was a resurrected “My Old Kentucky Home” debate last year, fueled by a book by Emily Bingham, a Bellarmine University visiting fellow and descendant of a privileged Louisville family that used to publish the Courier Journal, the state’s largest newspaper.
Stephen Foster’s 1853 sentimental ballad, influenced by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” has had a complicated and racially tainted legacy. It’s Kentucky’s state song, sung by the Churchill crowd during the Derby post parade since the Matt Winn era, but objections to it as racist and a paean to plantation life have been recurring. Bingham called the song “unredeemable” and said “its public performance in spaces led and controlled by white Americans is by definition an act of white supremacy.”
Her dialectic — taken up by local and national media commentators — notwithstanding, the great African American singer, actor and civil rights and political activist Paul Robeson recorded a moving version of the song in 1958. And prominent African American abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass remarked in his 1855 autobiographical narrative “My Bondage and My Freedom” that the song “awakens sympathies for the slave, in which antislavery principles take root, grow, and flourish.”
What to make of the inkblot? After considering the issue, which has resurfaced this year, Churchill announced it will continue presenting the song. The Derby — in part at least and for good or bad — is still about tradition and continuity.
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