What’s the deal with the Derby?

By Alex Bullock
sports editor

The Kentucky Derby, held every year at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, is considered an American tradition, but is it really a sporting event? And why is it so popular? These are the questions I found myself asking as I watched the coverage of this year’s edition of the “Fastest Two Minutes In Sports.”

For one thing, the coverage sure is boring for something that is called “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports.” I watched almost two hours of absolutely nothing, only because I was hoping to see the horse race which was always supposedly coming right up.

I watched the horses get moved from one set of stalls to another and paraded in front of the grandstands. I watched the jockeys all process out of wherever jockeys get ready. Then I watched the jockeys mount their horses and walk around the track for what seemed like hours. And then the race happened and it was over just like that. The coverage was filled with relentless commercial breaks and promos for NBC’s next big show.

Without a doubt the Kentucky Derby is a unique spectacle and part of American culture. It’s a spectator’s heaven. It’s held at an amazing venue filled with history and people who are all happy to be there and ready to have a good time. It’s the Superbowl of people-watching, really, with all of the women in lavish attire and the men wearing their frattiest outfits. It’s a place to be noticed, especially for the millionaire horse owners and other celebrity fans who spend large amounts of money just to be there.

It seems to me, especially with all of the grandeur of the event that is associated with just being there rather than the actual reason to be there, the horse race, that the event is more popular as a sort of social event rather than a sporting event. As long as the spectacle and atmosphere surrounding the event remained unchanged, the horse racing part could be replaced with any other type of sporting event and the attendance and hype would remain the same.

And is it really a sport? I guess it depends on your definition of what makes a sport, but to me, it all comes down to how fast your horse is and whether the jockey can pace the horse correctly in the right spots on the track in order to finish first. The jockey has to decide when the time is right to unleash the horse’s full speed. That does take skill, but not athletic skill. The horses are the real athletes here. After all, I could name you the name of the horse that won the derby, Orb, or a few other famous horses, but I could not name one talented jockey or horse trainer.

One of the joys of sports is finding your team or your favorite athlete and keeping that particular rooting interest over a long period of time. By nature, the Kentucky Derby prevents that, as only three-year-old horses may run in the race.

And really, it’s hard to root for a horse. Do you really think the horse comprehends the gravitas of the moment? When Orb was adorned in roses and celebrated as a champion, the colt probably had no clue what was happening. It’s a horse.

For me, the only kinds of racing that are actually sports are things like track and swimming and skiing. NASCAR is not a sport. If you can sit down the entire time you are partaking in the event, you are not participating in a sport.

I don’t mean to downplay the skill needed to be a successful driver, but the machine is doing the majority of the work. If the drivers want to settle the score with a footrace, ala Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen in Talladega Nights: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby, then maybe I’ll be more welcoming. But until then, NASCAR can join horse racing in its limbo between sports and entertainment.

So, in my opinion, the Kentucky Derby is not a sporting event. It may be an American tradition, but let’s stop calling it a sporting event and simply call it what it is: horse racing.