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Derby Has Become A Carnival Of The Bizarre

May 2nd, 2006 by Billy Reed · No Comments

News item: Brother Derek, the likely Kentucky Derby favorite, worked a half-mile mile in 49.20 seconds Monday morning, an effort that inspired trainer Dan Hendricks to declare, "This is what the Derby is all about."

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It’s difficult to concentrate on the 132nd Kentucky Derby when you’re constantly being distracted by a homophobic Governor, a tacky partnership that cheapens the state’s two most famous institutions, Hispanic immigrants, Muhammad Ali, the shrinking of the famed twin spires at Churchill Downs, and, most importantly, the latest buzz about Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee.

Of course, the Derby long has been more than just a horse race. It’s a piece of Americana, a slice of immortality. Even the homeless people on Fisherman’s Wharf know who wins the Derby. But this year, more than ever, it might sink under the weight of its own hype. It’s supposed to be about the horses and the people who ride them and care for them. Instead, it’s become a carnival of the bizarre.

All that’s reasonably certain is that late Saturday afternoon, Governor Ernie Fletcher will present the gold trophy to some lucky owner as the traditional blanket of red roses are thrown around the winner’s sweaty neck. The first Republican to be elected Governor in 32 years, Fletcher rode into office partly because he was a leader of the movement to ban same-sex marriage, which the Kentucky legislature did.

Last month the Governor, a fundamentalist Christian, celebrated Diversity Day in the commonwealth by withdrawing guarantees that protect state workers from discrimination because of their sexual orientation. He also approved an $11 million state budget appropriation to a private university that kicked out an honor student because he admitted to being gay.

One can only hope that the Derby isn’t won by Sweetnorthernsaint. That name sounds a little, ah, different, don’t you think?

News item: Churchill Downs, Inc., will release first-quarter results next Tuesday.

When you’re watching the telecast of the Derby at home, in a bar, or at your favorite simulcasting outlet, you’ll probably notice the Yum! Brands logo exhibited everywhere except the horses’ rear ends. This is because the suits who run Churchill Downs decided to let the parent company of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut become the first corporate naming sponsor in the Derby’s 132-year history.

These are the same guys who last year unveiled a massive $121 million renovation that offended everyone with a sense of history, tradition, and preservation. About all that’s left of the old track are the famed twin spires, and they’re now dwarfed on either side by massive towers of corporate luxury boxes. Once an American sporting shrine, Churchill now is just another swanky Vegas-style casino.

Imagine, if you can, adding a new level to the Golden Gate Bridge and adorning it with blinking neon lights. That’s more or less what the barbarians have done to Churchill Downs.

Somewhere in marketing heaven, a couple of ersatz Colonels are crying on the shoulders of their soul brother, Col. Tom Parker, the man who turned Elvis into a cash cow. Col. Matt Winn, the man who single-handedly promoted the Derby into the world’s most famous horse race, and Col. Harland Sanders, the huckster who parlayed his fried-chicken recipe into a fortune, never could have imagined their creations merging in such a craven and tacky fashion.

News item: Muhammad Ali — Louisville native, peace activist, and three-time heavyweight champ — is the grand marshal for Thursday’s Pegasus Parade.

Monday’s national cause du jour was called "A Day Without Immigrants," and it was designed to demonstrate the importance of immigrants to the work force. Some stores catering to Hispanics closed, and a few immigrants skipped work.

It’s lucky for the racing world that the national organizers of "A Day Without Immigrants" didn’t decide to hold their event on Derby Day, considering the names of some of the Derby jockeys: Alex Solis, Edgar Prado, Ramon Dominguez, Garrett Gomez, Jose Lezcano, Fernando Jara, Patrick Valenzuela, Rafael Bejarano, Cornelio Velasquez, and Robby Albarado.

Of course, considering the money and prestige involved in the Derby, the jockeys probably would take their cue from the Hispanic workers on the Churchill backstretch. On Monday, immigrant hotwalkers, grooms, and exercise riders generally reported to work as usual. "They are so busy," said Julio Rubio, Hispanic services coordinator for a racing organization.

Muhammad Ali is another copout. In the 1960s, he protested the war in Vietnam by refusing to be inducted into the U.S. Army on religious grounds (he was ultimately vindicated by the U.S. Supreme Court). That made him a source of inspiration to downtrodden people of color around the world.

But today Ali is quiet about both the war in Iraq and the immigration controversy. To be fair, some of his silence is due to the toll that Parkinson’s Syndrome has taken on his body and his voice. But it’s also true that his wife, Lonnie, told a reporter that Ali, a converted Muslim, would stay out of the war controversy because he didn’t want to offend his corporate sponsors.

News item: Notorious rocker Tommy Jones says he’s looking forward to coming to his first Derby and "taking it all off…uh, in."

Pamela Anderson, the former "Baywatch" babe and perennial Derby "celebrity," is a front person, so to speak, for PETA. Earlier this year she announced that she’s boycotting the Derby to protest what she considers it to be a symbol of cruelty to thoroughbreds and chickens. The horses, you know about. But the chickens came into play because of the track’s partnership with Yum! Brands.

You should understand that Anderson’s protest is not on the same level as, say, the immigration protest that was Monday’s national cause du jour. By boycotting the Derby, Anderson is surrendering only her invitations to lavish parties and her primo VIP seat on Derby Day. It is not what you would call a major sacrifice.

Maybe it was coincidence, and maybe not, but soon after Anderson announced her boycott, Jones announced that he would be coming to the Derby to attend a couple of parties and play some rock-n-roll at a downtown nightspot. He, of course, is her former husband and partner in a sex tape that became an international phenonenon when it popped up on the internet.

News item: Showing Up went four furlongs in 49.60 seconds at Belmont Park and is scheduled to be shipped to the Downs on Thursday.

Sometimes it’s still about the horses.




Tags: History · Horse Racing · Kentucky Derby · Miscellaneous · Sports

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