The Kentucky Derby mystique
How did race transcend niche sport to captivate world for two minutes each year?
Racing's burgeoning transcontinental popularity during the Great Depression and into the post World War II era, when it competed for public attention only with baseball and boxing, contributed mightily to the Derby's entrenchment in the sporting landscape, a period during which Omaha, War Admiral, Count Fleet, Assault and Citation would win the big race in Louisville and Triple Crown long before that designation was imparted to the sweep of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Television, still in its infancy during the 1950s, played a huge role in expanding the Derby's sphere, bringing to American homes not only the race itself, but introducing the significant players during broadcasts of preliminary races to winter-bound cities with no more than one or two stations. The emerging technology of the time failed to fully convey the experience and still fails in the present age of the high-definition flat-screen and surround sound.John Steinbeck, the novelist, wrote this after attending the Derby for the first time and experiencing Needles' win in 1956: "By the time this is written, there will be few people in the nation who will not have seen the race on television or heard it on radio, and they will all have felt to some extent the bursting emotion at Churchill Downs. Every step of the great Needles will have been discussed -- how he dawdled along trailing the field for two-thirds of the course, then fired himself like a torpedo past the screaming stands and the straining horses to win while the balloon of tension swelled and burst and it was all over. "Now there is a languor. Over a hundred thousand hearts are more spent than Needles' heart, and some of them split and their owners on the way to the hospital or the morgue. "I am fulfilled and weary. This Kentucky Derby, whatever it is -- a race, an emotion, a turbulence, an explosion -- is one of the most beautiful and violent and satisfying things I have ever experienced. And I suspect that, as with other wonders, the people one by one have taken from it exactly as much good or evil as they brought to it. "What an experience. I am glad I have seen and felt it at last." Steinbeck's experience is shared and understood fully by anyone who has been at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of any May and was still sober at post time. The place during that two minutes engulfs the consciousness, overwhelms the senses, making it all but impossible to hear anything except a building roar or remain fully aware of what transpires on the racetrack until the horses are in direct view. It is possible to identify the animal about to be enshrined in the Louisville pantheon, and even then you wait to watch the replay before you are certain of the outcome. Literally, the building if not the ground beneath shakes. The experience is enveloping, every witness immersed entirely, a rapture two minutes long that reaches crescendo as the leader enters the final furlong, screams to the heavens and fades slowly in an almost languorous sweetness.
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