Kentucky Derby Customs

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Every year about this time I begin to hear lots of talk about the Kentucky Derby. I hear and read about the year’s hottest trends in hats for the derby, drinks for the Derby, the best way to make a mint julep, and recipes for prize-winning Derby Pie! Huge parties are planned for Derby Day! Women take great pains in choosing just the right hat and just the right dress! And if you’re lucky enough to score a ticket to Churchill Downs to witness the spectacle in person, then you’re the envy of every single one of your friends and colleagues. In recent years, Derby Day seems to have become a sensation! But ironically, no one seems to care very much about the horses!

Growing up on and around horses, I always looked forward to Derby Day. As a kid, the day revolved around the horses. I knew the color, track record, and pedigree of every single entry. I knew every jockey, their weight and the color and pattern of their silks. By the time Derby Day Saturday rolled around I was nearly in a froth to watch it! Sadly though, I found that every year the broadcasters spent less and less time talking about the horses and increasingly more time talking about the festivities. I wanted to see horses, not the crowds. During the post parade when the band wistfully plays My Old Kentucky Home, you’d see teary-eyed women hopelessly trying to sing along instead of the horses who were actually running in the race.

So what about the horses? Are they really an integral part of Derby Day? The Kentucky Derby is one race in a day of races, and just one of thousands run every year all across the country. From post parade to the winner’s circle, it lasts a total of approximately twenty minutes. The race itself lasts about three. So with all the focus on the customs surrounding the race, why do we need the race at all? Derby Day doesn’t seem to have very much to do with the horses anymore, so why do the horses have to be involved at all? 

The nonprofit organization In Defense of Animals stated on their Web site that, “Around 800 racehorses die each year from fatal injuries suffered on U.S. racetracks. An additional number of approximately 3,566 sustain injuries so bad that they cannot finish their races.” When the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand retired, he was sold to a breeder in Japan. After a fruitless stand at stud, Ferdinand was “disposed of.” Translation: sent to slaughter.

Unfortunately, Ferdinand’s fate is not unusual among thoroughbred racehorses. A countless number of young but broken thoroughbreds are sent to slaughter every year after unsuccessful racing careers, but no one ever hears about them. Heck, few people know about Ferdinand’s tragic end even though he became part of racing royalty.

I hope that eventually Derby Day will serve as a wonderful celebration of Kentucky and old, southern culture: A day when the hats and the mint juleps, the Derby Pies and parties all become a widespread celebration of spring. I also hope this celebration will embrace the majesty of the horse instead exploiting it. So, hats off to Derby Day, but let’s leave the horses out of it. 


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