Kentucky Derby: Can the 2 Greatest Minutes in Sports Save a Dying Industry?

This Saturday, as the opening strains of "My Old Kentucky Home" begin to play, take note of the people on the screen who are not staring at their programs, who are singing with absolute certainty, and whose eyes are either transfixed on the state flag of Kentucky above them, or the glistening horses below. 

To these people, this day is much more than a party, a big hat, or a mint julep. It is more than just their passion, their livelihood, and thousands upon thousands of hours of hard work and dedication.  This year, as the call to post rings out at Churchill Downs, watch their eyes glisten as they begin to consume the realization that this running of the Kentucky Derby is no longer for the $2 million dollar purse, but a match race between the thoroughbred industry itself and the lack of knowledgeable legislation in our state and federal government.

The Bluegrass has always been synonymous with three things: basketball, bourbon, and beautiful horses. We strive for greatness in all three, and with the determination that most Kentuckians share, we almost always achieve it. But in the last few years, what was once a $4 billion dollar industry in the state of Kentucky alone is quickly dwindling.  

Just recently, on February 22, 2012, a bill was rejected at the state level that was written to allow casino’s at our racetracks. The casinos would have increased revenue, purses, and increased job security for the masses. The bill was quickly dashed down after uneducated speakers, such as Allison Forgy Kerr (R), based the merits of the thoroughbred industry against her so-called morality. Our racetracks are fading due to this lack of gambling legislature; our farms are falling claim to the crash of the economy and being sold to developers; and our horses are being sent to states who have representatives that seem to care more for their lasting legacy than ours do. Our horse flesh once was the greatest pride of this Commonwealth, and yet now they are being swept from the state with quick and aggressive strokes.

For the average person watching, these horses will be admired for no more than the two minutes that it will take them to run their mile and a quarter. But, for the thousands of people that work within this industry in the state of Kentucky, these statuesque animals are our sweat and tears — our pride and joy. We will watch the Derby this Saturday from farm houses, foaling barns, training tracks, or if we are lucky, owners’ and clients’ boxes. 

For us there is little to no glamour  —  this is just another Saturday of breeding season, one in which we will pace the barns, hoping to produce what may just be the next horse to have roses draped around their neck. For every horse that walks onto that track this Saturday, there is an army of people that it took to get it there, but we are battling a strong defensive strike.

Our industry is in dire need: A need for state legislature to stop penalizing the horse industry with their right-wing familial motives, a need for renewed interest in the “playing of the ponies;” a game that was supposed to be only a Sport of Kings, is now in  dire need of the assistance of the common man. And finally, there is the need for a spark; that infinitesimal lighting up of a child’s eyes when they see their first Secretariat, or their first Zenyatta, needs to be encouraged to grow to a flame, one that will adamantly keep this industry burning.

This year, the Running of the Roses will have a heady amount of weight on its shoulders. As an industry and as a people, we are no longer running silk against silk for the prestige or for the money; we are running together to save our industry and everything that it encompasses. Our bluegrass is in grave danger of losing its seed, and everyone – from Millionaire’s Row to the hotwalker scaling trees on the backside to catch a glimpse, need to join together to resuscitate this flailing industry.  

So as you watch the tears streaming down the faces of those on the big screen, do not mock them for their eccentricities  — join in with their boisterous song and sing for what is not just two minutes of your excitement but centuries of their history. Sing for the horses, sing for Kentucky, but most importantly, sing for the industry that we are so quickly losing.