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Life is a Horse Race: The Savage Beauty of the Kentucky Derby

Life is a Horse Race: The Savage Beauty of the Kentucky Derby:

LAS VEGAS _ I love horse racing but hate that a jockey must whip the horse. This paradox is something I’m used to. This is what it means to be alive. Rarely is anything humans do ever totally clean or easy. We tend to mix beauty with brutality. Not to do my best impression of Werner Herzog, but a great truth of life is: Pain motivates. Excellence requires it. It’s the preferred sacrifice.

I keep thinking about this as I wait for the Kentucky Derby to begin. If you told me 20 men were going to be on TV whipping horses for nearly two minutes, there’s no way I’d watch. But every year, on the first Saturday in May, despite my aversion to the brutality of the sport, like millions of Americans, I watch the Kentucky Derby for the excellence and unparalleled beauty.

Right now Las Vegas is overly ripe with happy-faced tourists and amateur-hour drunks in town to wager hundreds of millions of dollars. Even though we’re waiting for the horses to run, most everyone here is talking about boxing. Later on tonight, Floyd Mayweather Jr. will fight Manny Pacquiao.

One man is a homophobe and the other is a domestic abuser. (The domestic abuser will win, FYI.) There’s no “good guy” to root for. Despite this, each man will earn hundreds of millions of dollars to bloody the other before the roar of a sold-out crowd. For one simple reason: we still love a well-orchestrated symphony of violence. This is also why we love horse races.

They’re two of our most ancient sports. They both comment on humanity in ways that words can’t fully convey. Boxing and horse racing boast a deep and timeless appeal. The same way that barbecue meat smelled good when I was a vegetarian kid who’d never tasted cooked flesh.

It’s true we’ve matured as a culture. We’re no longer as savage as we once were. Which is why, for many people today, it feels wrong to watch two men beat each other half to death just to amuse us. It feels equally unethical to whip a horse in order to scare it into running at top speed.

Thus, boxing and horse racing, now, both look like semi-embarrassing spectacles. Yet they persist. Why? Well, it’s because they address both sides of our humanity: beauty and beasts.

JAMES, NOT JIMMY
Standing in the sports book section of the MGM Grand, I’m gauging the crowd, taking its pulse before the action starts. All around me the air stinks with the pungent aroma of cigar smoke. It’s an unmistakable odor. I spot two 50-something white guys seated, patiently waiting for the Derby. Each man is sucking what looks like a hairless donkey’s dick they lit on fire. They smoke their stogies with the sort of nonchalance that lets you know they’re truly enjoying them.

I drop into the theater seat next to one of the middle-aged white guys and ask him about the Derby. His name is James. He looks like a James. He’s definitely not a Jim or a Jimmy. I ask if he’s a diehard fan, the type of guy who never misses the Kentucky Derby.

“I would say I’m a casual fan of the Derby. But I watch every year,” James says between puffs.

The way he says “casual” without any rush or fuss makes him sounds like a Kentucky colonel who somehow misplaced his accent. I ask about his favorite past Derby winners.

“Alydar. Seattle Slew. Big Brown. Secretariat. I’m dating myself with that one,” he chuckles.

I ask James if he bet on the race. He nods. “I bet for a winner,” he says, as if any other option is bullshit.

“So just the one bet?” I ask.

“I like Dortmund,” he says. “He’s at 4-1.”

It’s a solid choice. Smart money agrees with James.

“I showed up today – I flew in from Los Angeles – and I read in the paper about him,” James says. “And then, I watched a clip of him run in the last race he won. I think this is it right now.”

We turn our attention to the wall of screens. Dortmund tears up the earth as he muscles down a straightaway, looking every inch a winner.

James narrates the action, “He’s really hard to control. He’s super-feisty. In a crowded field, he really fights. So, that’s why I like him.”

When you ask most people to describe why they like something, you’ll hear what they like about themselves. James is no exception. As we watch Dortmund run, he expands on what he loves about a horse race. “They’re such beautiful animals. It’s this amazing man-and-beast kind of thing. And the speed is great. Plus, there’s the pageantry each year. It’s really one of the Great American Events.”

American Tradition

THE TICKET MAGICIAN
I spot an older brother with a dusting of salt and pepper in his beard. I think to myself: He probably saw the Great Ones run. Anyone who was alive and watching horse racing in the 1970s got to see the last three Triple Crown winners. Secretariat in 1973. Seattle Slew in 1977. And then Affirmed in 1978. Since then no horse has matched that feat.

The older brother tells me his name is The Ticket Magician. He’s in town for the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, but first he wants to bet on the horses. Like James he’s from California. I ask if he watches the Derby every year.

“Yes, sir,” he announces in a rich deep voice that makes you wish he read audio books for a living. “I’m just here to enjoy myself and have a good time. See what happens. But Firing Line has got to win.”

“Why do you watch the races? What do you love about the Derby?”

He thinks a moment.

“You don’t know who’s gonna win. You never know who’s gonna win. Alydar. That was my favorite year. Alydar finished second in all three Triple Crown races to Affirmed. That was back in ‘78.”

I mention to the Ticket Magician that I’m betting on the horse called American Pharaoh. The bookmakers agree that he’s the favorite. I ask what The Ticket Magican thinks of him.

“He’s a great horse. But this is the Kentucky Derby. Horses get nervous, too. Believe it or not, horses get nervous just like people. Lot of lights. Lot of stress. Some horses aren’t used to that. But then, with some, you see a calmness. I love to see that. Sweating a little bit. But calm.”

I ask the Ticket Magician if he ever saw Zenyatta run. He nods.

Back in 2010 I woke up one Saturday morning and sped across town to Hollywood Park to see Zenyatta run. She was attempting to win her 19th race in a row. Zenyatta had already broken Citation’s record of 17 straight victories and was looking to extend her winning streak and be the first horse to win 20 races.

Zenyatta was famous for her late charge. She would hang back in the pack, for most of the race. But as they would round turn four and head into the final stretch, she’d suddenly power past those other thoroughbreds like they were racing in mud. It was a thing of beauty, spurred by the sting of a riding crop.

Standing against the rail at the finish line, I felt the ground tremor beneath me like a tiny earthquake. As we watched Zenyatta make her come-from-behind-move, the whole crowd exploded in noise like we were witnesses to a miracle. It was her final victory. She lost her last race and finished her career 19-1. Zenyatta is and was one of the greatest horses to ever run. But she never raced in the Kentucky Derby.

Right now two middle-aged Asian women are placing bets at the window. They’ve been there for at least five minutes. The only other window taking bets on the Derby has a minimum $1,000 wager. Surprisingly, people are lined up to happily cough up a few grand to bet on the Kentucky Derby. I finally take my place at the window and get to drop my dollars. I plan to bet $30. I’m not here for the gambling. That’s just some added action.

There’s a horse named Mr. Z. He’s a 50-1 long shot. No one thinks he’ll win. But I have to bet on a horse named Mr. Z. And I also like the 30-1 long shot, Danzig Moon. Never seen him run. I pick the horse purely for its name. At the betting window, I place ten on the frontrunner American Pharaoh. And for fun, I put ten bucks on each of my two long shots.

Betting stubs

ELMO
Twenty minutes before the race, and the sports book area is filling up. I steal a seat from a guy who’s standing, talking to friends. When he sees me get comfortable, he says with a hint of drunken anger, “Yo, bro, that’s my seat.”

Rather than get up I whip out my phone and ask to interview him. He tells me his name is Elmo. And in some ways, he kind of looks like the precocious Sesame Street character. He is just as quick to laugh.

Elmo tells me, “This is actually the first year I’ve ever watched the Derby. I didn’t know it was that big of a deal. But it’s really big.”

“Wait, no one in your family ever watched the Derby?” I ask.

“A Hispanic family? No. We don’t know horses. For us, it’s all about soccer,” he says.

What Elmo doesn’t know is that the last winner of the Kentucky Derby was a Mexican dude named Espinoza. Lots of jockeys these days are Latino. And the first cowboys in the West were the Mexican caballeros. All those John Wayne-looking white guys came way later. Like, hundreds of year later. But rather than talk about race, I ask Elmo why is he watching the Derby this year.

“I just happened to be in Vegas when it was happening. So I figured I’d might as well bet on it and watch it. They say it’s pretty short. I just gotta see the crowd. I know they’re gonna cheer. They say it gets pretty crazy,” he says, as he looks around.

CICELY
When they start to play “My Old Kentucky Home” at Churchill Downs, I spot an elegant-looking black woman, singing along.

“You must be from Kentucky,” I say to her with a friendly grin. I can’t imagine many black women want to sing that song in public. She’s terribly polite and her Southern accent feels familiar in my ear. Her name is Cicely. She laughs often and easily.

“You know I’ve been to the Kentucky Derby. I just love it,” She says with unmistakable pride. “The food, the drinks, the mint juleps, the pictures – everything – it’s just a lot of fun. We get great big hats and new dresses. The whole nine yards.”

“That does sound fun, but, like, what about after the Derby? Do the hats get used as Easter Hats the next year? Or is it like a wedding dress – something you only want to wear once?”

“I have a collection of hats that I’ve only worn one time. You just can’t wear the same hat twice. I like to donate them. I prefer to give them to other people; otherwise, they just sit up in a box somewhere,” she says with a warm smile.

I ask her how it compares to watch the Derby in a casino, instead of back home in Kentucky. She looks at me like I asked her to compare the sushi in the Newark Airport to what it’s like eating it in Tokyo. But again the Southern charm wins out. She says, “It’s different. I will say this, you can see the race really well. At the Kentucky Derby I wasn’t able to always see what was going on because of the excitement in the crowd.”

“Do you ever worry this a dying tradition?” I ask, pointing at the crowd. “This is an old crowd.”

She grows sad for a moment, “Yes, it is a dying sport. I wish more people would get into it. I don’t think they know enough about it. But I will say, Churchill Downs is doing things to make the race more interesting and fun. They’re using social media to reach a younger crowd. They need to do that more. It used to be that no younger people were going. But I feel like it’s getting more popular. This year 170,000 people are at the Kentucky Derby.”

THE RACE
The horses are on the track. They’re getting set in the starting gates. It’s a small calm before the storm of dirt and thundering muscle pounds the earth. In the casino the crowd falls into a soft murmur. Right now everyone thinks they could be a winner.

When the gates open, the horses erupt in a full sprint.

A thoroughbred horse typically runs at 40 mph. Top speed is about 44 mph. This may not seem fast. But if you’re on the back of a racehorse running at full gallop you probably wouldn’t want to be going any faster. You’d just try to hold on.

After the first turn, I hear the announcer call out the name of one of my horses. He’s on the outside, trying to make his move. But this is the last time I will hear him say the name Mr. Z. My other long shot, Danzig Moon is lost somewhere in the pack of also-rans.

But by the second turn, American Pharaoh is out there with the other frontrunners, Dortmund and Firing Line. They’re powering forward, pulling away from the pack.

After the horses round turn three the casino builds to a furious boil. People leap from their seats and pump their fists as if they can make their horse run faster. Right now, all that matters is this moment. When the horses round turn four, the front-runners and late-stalkers make their move.

The final stretch is met by a chaos of noise and drunken cheers. Hands raise up. United together by the competition, we’re all screaming at our horses. It feels good. No one is a loser yet. We’re all could-be winners.

The lead horses are Dortmund, Firing Line, and American Pharaoh. Running neck-and-neck.

Elmo screams like the diehards. He jumps up and down like he’s been going to the track since he was a toddler. Cicely shouts; her hot words rushing past her husband’s ears, but he doesn’t seem to mind.

Finally, American Pharaoh wins by less than a length, beating Firing Line and Dortmund by inches. When they cross the finish line the casino crowd celebrates just like the folks in Kentucky.

After American Pharaoh is named the official winner, the cameras focus on the Mexican jockey Victor Espinoza. He’s won back-to-back Kentucky Derby titles. It’s the third Derby win in his career. At the betting window, to collect my winnings, I hear Espinoza, the winning jockey, say in his post-race interview, “I feel like the luckiest Mexican in the world!” I really hope Elmo heard him say that.

Unlike humans and our races, horse races tend to bring us together. If only for a moment. We all cheer and thrill at the powerful, graceful beauty while we rationalize away the violence and cruelty that motivates it. But hey, that’s life, right?


Zaron Burnett III is a staff writer for Playboy.com.

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