The Kentucky Derby, it’s been frequently noted, is about horses, about guts, about the state of Kentucky, about Louisville, and about bourbon. It’s also about words.
Boxing and baseball and horseracing. Those three endeavors have gathered about themselves more pristine patches of prose than just about anything else that's transpired in this nation, save perhaps war and race and recreational drugs.
But this week is Derby Week, and that makes it as good a time as any to remember how sportswriters come to the Kentucky Derby ready to make the most of their craft, and in doing so have left readers and race fans alike as fine a treasury of English prose as journalism has to offer.
In the company of Red Smith, Bill Murray, Jerry Izenberg, and so many other ink-stained greats not even literary all-stars like William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and Louisville's own Hunter S. Thompson were out of place.
We'd like to share some of the best of those old stories about the Derby with you, in hopes of furthering your own love affair with the sport, with Kentucky, or with words – or with all three at once.
Such lists are always subjective, and rarely complete. But I can say I come by my own prose prejudices and passions honestly. There was a time in my twenties when scoring press passes to the Kentucky Derby seemed as important as anything a struggling journalist might ever aspire to. And when they came with real, live work writing about the Derby? Well, that’s the kind of thing that the god-touched speak of in hoarse whispers.
In 1996, I was 25 and working the track as a kind of privileged stringer for Reuters, which at the time covered sporting events if they were important enough to quicken the pulses of readers overseas and hardly ever otherwise. That meant yes to the Triple Crown, to heavyweight title fights and to the Masters – and no to pretty much everything else.
Fair enough. For me it meant all-access passes to millionaires’ row, rent money for a couple months, and a chance to wander backside rubbing shoulders with jockeys, trainers and stable boys. Most of all, it meant working close with the crotchety but patient sportswriter they sent each year from New York, a tough-talking Guild boss named John Phillips, a slouched over guy with prose as gentle and light as a jockey on the back of a thoroughbred.
John introduced me to all sorts of super stars. There was someone from the Boston Globe who gambled too much. Here was Jim Murray, tall and gaunt and surprisingly friendly, of the Los Angeles Times. There on the wall of the press box was a tribute to Red Smith
Back then, the press box was near Millionaire’s Row, and while it lacked the finery of that fabled grandstand, the press box had something that even the swells next door could have appreciated: An endless buffet, a couple of kegs full of cold beer, and a special betting window that stayed busy from the moment the hard-case gamblers who passed as sportswriters for some of the best newspapers in America arrived and until after the track brought the winning horse’s owner, jockey and trainer up to the press box for post-race palaver with the journalists.
I was in heaven. John told me to say hi to an older man with a white beard hunched over his laptop. He was Jerry Izenberg, who had been a legend in the business long before I learned to talk, much less type. A star columnist for the Star-Ledger, Izenberg also, John whispered to me later, had been one of the greats who stood up for Muhammad Ali when the heavyweight champ demanded to be called by that name rather than Cassius Clay, as most of the world's white editors had insisted.
This time of year, these fond memories come back with all the freshness of a mint julep so newly mixed that the pewter is still frosted over. I hope you enjoy the highly personal selection.
1. Jimmy Breslin. Racing's Angriest Young Man.
This was named best magazine piece of 1961 and included in the anthology f the best sports writing that year. Breslin died a year ago last month at an advanced age or, as Dan Barry put it in his epic obituary, "He was 88 and, until very recently, was still pushing somebody's buttons with two-finger jabs."
Breslin wrote novels, non-fiction books and, for many years, tabloid columns of singular depth. He's best remembered for his street-smart columns and his decision to write about the funeral of JFK by talking the man who dug his grave at Arlington. But here, in True magazine, three years earlier, was Breslin at the Derby with his notebook out:
The shack was on stilts so the floor wouldn't be against the ground in wintertime. But it didn't matter because when you went out to the creek for drinking water and brought it back in a basin, the way Bill Hartack had to before dinner every night, any of it that would drip on the floor quickly turned to ice. A pot-bellied stove was the only warm thing in shack number 371 and this does not constitute a heating system, even for a tiny three-room shack. But it was all they had because Hartack's father worked at soft coal in the mines around Golver, Pennsylvania, and there was no money in this. Nor was there much of a life in the shack. Hartack's mother had been killed when he was 7 and he had to raise his two sisters
while his father dug coal.
You always remember this when you tell about Bill Hartack, the talented jockey who is one of the most controversial people in sports. It might make him easier to understand, you think.
But then Hartack will be at a race track, acting the way he did at Churchill Downs last May 7, and you forget everything because there is only one way to describe him. You say, simply, that his attitude is to hell with everybody and you have captured Hartack.
At 4:30 that afternoon, a guy in khaki work shirt and pants who is an assistant starter at Churchill Downs came up to Hartack's horse, a blaze-faced colt named Venetian Way. The guy took the horse by the bit, let him prance for a moment, then led him into stall number nine of the starting gate so they could begin the Kentucky Derby.
When the 14 horses all were locked into the gate, they slammed nervously into the tin sides and fronts of the stalls and the jockeys were calling "Not yet" and "No chance, boss" to the starter and there was a lot of noise and tension. Then the bell rang and the gate clacked open and, with riders yelping, the horses came out. Each made a leap first, because a race horse always is surprised to see the ground when the gate opens and he jumps at it. Then the horses started to run with the long, beautiful stride of a thoroughbred and there was a roar from the big crowd.
2. Red Smith on deadline, on Secretariat's win, 1973.
A few years ago, WDRB sportswriter Eric Crawford called Red Smith the greatest sportswriter in history, save perhaps Jim Murray. His point: The Derby brings out the best, naturally.
Any list of that best work that didn’t include Red Smith would be immediately suspect — even if, in this piece from 1973 historic Derby contains a brazen error. See if you can spot it.
To get a fuller measure of the writer, and of his love affair with horseracing, check this tribute out in The Atlantic.
3. Hunter S. Thompson, 1970. The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved."
Enough has been written about this piece, the birth piece as it were of Gonzo Journalism, to satisfy even Hunter Thompson. The piece, published in Grantland a few years ago, is a wonderful trip through the acid-tongued prose of the Louisville native who returned to what had become of his high school running bunnies. The opening scenes in the Louisville airport lobby with Jim from Houston have come to mind every time I land at SDF.
While you're hear, you might as well take a listen to an interview between Bourbon Story editor Michael Lindenberger and Thompson's old coworker the extraordinary artist Ralph Steadman.
4. Horseman, Pass By by John Jeremiah Sullivan.
Glory, grief, and the race for the Triple Crown
This 2002 Harper's piece is lovely, but so was his 2004 book, Blood Horses. From the description at amazon.com:
One evening late in his life, veteran sportswriter Mike Sullivan was asked by his son what he remembered best from his three decades in the press box. The answer came as a surprise. "I was at Secretariat's Derby, in '73. That was ... just beauty, you know?"
John Jeremiah Sullivan didn't know, not really-but he spent two years finding out, journeying from prehistoric caves to the Kentucky Derby in pursuit of what Edwin Muir called "our long-lost archaic companionship" with the horse. The result-winner of a National Magazine Award and named a Book of the Year by The Economist magazine-is an unprecedented look at Equus caballus, incorporating elements of memoir, reportage, and the picture gallery.
In the words of the New York Review of Books, Blood Horses "reads like Moby-Dick as edited by F. Scott Fitzgerald . . . Sullivan is an original and greatly gifted writer."
5. William Faulkner in Sports Illustrated. Thus saw Boone.
Speaking of Faulkner, here's how I introduced my piece from 2014: The Biggest Week in Bourbontown, for RoadsandKingdoms.com:
When the editors of the brand new Sports Illustrated cobbled together the money to pay William Faulkner to come to Louisville to write about the mad scene leading up to the 1955 Kentucky Derby, they had but one real concern: How to keep the famously thirsty Southern writer away from the city’s equally well known, and forgiving, attitude toward bourbon drinking long enough to keep him writing. They needn’t have worried. Faulkner was on a roll. On the day he arrived, Tuesday of Derby Week, he won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and by the end of the week had produced, in daily chunks of 300 words each, one of the most famous pieces of sports journalism of the last century.
I am not going to promise that you will have that same kind of luck this week should you decide to join me in Louisville for the horserace, which will go off again on Saturday in front of 165,000 or so whiskey-drunk gamblers and maybe 15 million Americans watching from the safety of their living rooms. But as the Lotto hucksters keep telling us, you can’t win if you don’t play – and there’s never been a better place to be on the first Saturday of May than in Louisville, Ky., when the bugler calls the horses to post and the lonesome notes of Stephen Foster’s My Old Kentucky Home wash over the more or less awe-struck, already hopped-up crowd beneath the white twinned spires of Churchill Downs.
By the end of that week in 1955, Faulkner had understood just that. He was, after all, a man who knew something about the power of place, of history—and of that brown liquor called bourbon that snakes through the story of Louisville like the muddy river on whose banks it was founded.
The race was already old in 1955, having been run year after year since 10 years after the slaves were freed, long enough then to count as a permanent fixture on the spring social calendar in all the right places in the South, but not yet so venerable a fact of life that very old folks couldn’t remember a time without a Derby.
But that didn’t limit Faulkner’s imagination.
“This saw Boone:” the piece began, “the bluegrass, the virgin land rolling westward wave by dense wave from the Allegheny gaps, unmarked then, teeming with deer and buffalo about the salt licks and the limestone springs whose water in time would make the fine bourbon whiskey; and the wild men too—the red men and the white ones too who had to be a little wild also to endure and survive and so mark the wilderness with the proofs of their tough survival—Boonesborough, Owenstown, Harrod’s and Harbuck’s Stations; Kentucky: the dark and bloody ground.”
6. William Nack. Pure Heart. Sports Illustrated.
Nack passed away in April at 77 and after a fantastic career, including 25 years at Sports Illustrated. A former colleague wrote this wonderful tribute to him.
The palette upon which Nack painted his most vivid portraits was horse racing, in particular, Secretariat. His story entitled Pure Heart, published in the June 4, 1990 issue of SI, was an emotional remembrance of the horse and the story that was the centerpiece of Nack’s career, Big Red’s run to the Triple Crown in the spring of 1973. Pure Heart, written several months after Secretariat was euthanized, was a passionate remembrance of a transcendent racehorse, but also of a man who had immersed himself in the story, and now found himself counting the passing of years and tasting the familiarity of his own tales.
7. Damon Runyon. All Horseplayers Die Broke. Collier's.
To change things up, and maybe offer a cautionary word to you big bettors, I'll leave you with a famous race-related piece by Runyon. Heck you don't have to read this one. You can listen to it, care of the Damon Runyon radio theater troupe. Runyon was a short story writer and journalist whose death prompted friend Walter Winchell to stage the first ever telethon used to raise money for a cause, in this case cancer research. Though known throughout the country for his fiction, some of his journalism -- and not just his sports pieces -- were hugely distributed. One of his last pieces, as he was sick and dying, was the lead story on the funeral of FDR for Hearst newspapers.