What makes the Kentucky Derby unique? No other event is so married to its place, its history and its people

Derby Day 2013 was rainy, and cool -- and fabulous. Like every year, it was a bourbon-fueled celebration of the perfect marriage of event and place. In a word: It was Louisville. (Photo by Nicole Ehrlich.

When the bugler calls the horses of the 140th Kentucky Derby to the post a little after 6 p.m. today, and the band begins to play My Old Kentucky Home, the fans at the track and countless Kentuckians watching far from home will share a moment unlike any other in American sport. More than the race itself -- described once as "130 seconds of earth-borne bliss" -- the Derby represents a perfect and unique marriage of place and event. You can play the Super Bowl anywhere, and no place, not even New York City, has a claim on the World Series, but you could no more take the Kentucky Derby out of Kentucky than you could run the Ohio River in Nebraska. 

I wrote those words four years ago atop a piece I published in TIME Magazine, and the editor wrote back to say he had 'trimmed some of the exuberance from your lead." He was a wonderful editor and usually right. But sitting here in Washington on Kentucky Derby Day 2014, it's easy to understand the exuberance I felt then about the singular nature of the Run for the roses. I feel it now. 

The link between the Kentucky Derby and the place it is held is powerful because it's organic, unmanufactured and 100 percent authentic. It's no slight to say that the Masters, for all their spring glory, have essential no connection to Georgia other than the accident that the August National has managed to stage one hell of a golf tournament down through the years. Indianapolis embraces its 500 every year with vigor, but the state of Indiana is not defined by motor racing the way horses, bourbon, and Southern hospitality -- all the things that make up the Kentucky Derby -- are essential parts of Kentucky.  

That authenticity is what makes bourbon so interesting, and it's the reason for this magazine. Kentucky doesn't just boast about bourbon, it makes it -- and in turn is in part defined by it. 

All over the world, consumers are looking for authenticity in the things they eat and drink, especially, from coffee to the farm-to-table movement to, yes, whiskey. There's a lot of hype to go along with the heritage, and one of our roles here at Bourbon Story will be to sort out the two, and help our readers remember what the different between history and heritage and mythology. 

All these things seem especially important today of all days. The brilliant shine that the Kentucky Derby puts on the surface of Kentucky thoroughbred industry obscured some very rough challenges, reminding us all that with every boom comes the risk of a bust. Things that seem to be eternal -- like whiskey and horse racing and tradition -- can decline and even disappear. 

The TIME story from 2010 that ran with a less exuberant lead wasn't just a celebration of The Kentucky Derby -- for that, check out last year's 5,000-word essay The Biggest Week in Bourbontown -- it was a warning cry that the racing industry was in trouble in Kentucky. From that piece:

"After nearly a century of dominance, Kentucky is losing its grip on the horse racing industry. Even more troubling? Its status as the breeding capital of the world -- the multi-billion-dollar business that keeps those beautiful fences painted as they snake through pristine horse country -- is under siege. Most of Kentucky's racetracks are struggling, some to the point of possible closure, and at every track racing dates and purses -- or both -- have been cut. States like Pennsylvania and Louisiana, powered in large part by revenues from trackside casinos, are threatening to erode Kentucky's breeding dominance. "It's as serious as a heart attack," Kentucky horseman Brereton Jones, who was governor from 1991-1995, told TIME last week." 

Four years later, the fears have become more manifest. Racing is in trouble all over the country, as Salon notes this morning. The New Orleans paper published a five-part series -- with dozens of follow-ups -- blasting Churchill Downs for being a bad steward of the 142-year-old Fairgrounds racetrack. In fact, the racing commission in Louisiana deferred action on a 10-year renewal of CDI's license to operate racing at the track and last week issued a one-year conditional extension instead. Churchill has promised improvements

But maybe today isn't the time to worry about all those problems. Maybe today it's time to remember that what makes the Derby special is its connection to its place. 

As for me, though, when the horses do head to the gate and the crowd goes still ahead of the singing of My Old Kentucky Home, I'll remember that bourbon, like horse breeding, has had its ups and its downs over its long history in Kentucky. We're seeing a mighty up right now, and there are a lot of bets being made that the story of Bourbon will only get better. 

But as Damon Runyon put it in his 1937 classic, "All horseplayers die broke." That's useful reminder, but not one anyone needs to spend too much time with on a day like this. Like the rest of you, I'll have a bourbon in my hand come time for the horses to run by and when I see them -- on television this year, alas -- I'll be thinking of another great phrase maker who described the burst out of the gate in 1955. 

Only a little over two minutes: one simultaneous metallic clash as the gates spring. Though you do not really know what it was you heard: whether it was that metallic crash, or the simultaneous thunder of the hooves in that first leap or the massed voices, the gasp, the exhalation—whatever it was, the clump of horses indistinguishable yet, like a brown wave dotted with the bright silks of the riders like chips flowing toward us along the rail until, approaching, we can begin to distinguish individuals, streaming past us now as individual horses—horses which (including the rider) once stood about eight feet tall and 10 feet long, now look like arrows twice that length and less than half that thickness, shooting past and bunching again as perspective diminishes, then becoming individual horses once more around the turn into the backstretch, streaming on, to bunch for the last time into the homestretch itself, then again individuals, individual horses, the individual horse, the Horse: 2:01[4/5] minutes.

 

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Michael Lindenberger

Michael Lindenberger is a 2012-13 Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, where he will spend a year developing a business model for blogs that looks beyond advertising and subscriptions for revenue. He is on leave from The Dallas Morning News, where he is a senior reporter writing about the nexus between the politics and policy of transportation on the local, state and national level. He is founder and co-author with Rodger Jones of the Dallas Transportation Blog. His print journalism was recognized in 2012 as the previous year's best example at The News of work that brings perspective, interpretation and analysis to bear on difficult topics. Also in 2012, the newspaper nominated his work for the Pulitzer Prize in local reporting. A 2006 graduate of the night program at Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville, Michael also is a contributing national legal affairs writer for TIME.com and a former adjunct professor of media law at the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism. His work has appeared in newspapers, wire reports and magazines around the world, including The New York Times, Reuters, The ABA Journal, Robb Report Magazine and others.