Derby Gives Horse Racing Its Due

Commentator Frank Deford muses on horse racing and the fact that Saturday's Kentucky Derby provides the sport with attention it often lacks.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Two minutes--that's all it will take for the fastest thoroughbred to circle the track at Churchill Downs this weekend. Heading into the home stretch now is commentator Frank Deford with his money's worth on a sport he says too many Americans neglect.

FRANK DEFORD:

It's a tired old cliche, of course, how all sports seasons go on too long. Actually, we're rather lucky here inasmuch as the soccer season in other countries is all but endless. At least the NBA, the erstwhile winter game, comes to a merciful conclusion by July 4th. But the one sport that never ends is horse racing. Only, of course, nobody outside the thoroughbred industry is much aware of that.

For most Americans now, horse racing is like Mother's Day; it's something that only suddenly appears in our consciousness in May, then disappears for a year as soon as the roses are cast over the withers of some lucky colt you might, might have heard of in an office pool. Of course, most sports office pools now are for March Madness. The Kentucky Derby has become the Brigadoon of sport.

There is, in fact, nothing sadder or eerier than to visit a major track these days. These great linear palaces were built to hold crowds of tens of thousands. Now sometimes only a few hundred desperate souls rattle around down the great long grandstands. Tongue in cheek, we used to refer to these racetrack regulars as improvers of the breed. Well, on this Sunday past, a typical race day, a mere 4,000 improvers of the breed bothered to show up at Aqueduct--4,000 in New York? Listen, on a Sunday in New York, 4,000 people will stumble off the street just for some kid's first communion.

Now some racetracks do still thrive in the United States, but they're not really racetracks. What they are are reconstituted slot machine emporiums where the lovely cacophony of bells and whistles and cascading coins is interrupted every half-hour by the odd sound of horses' hooves. Some people actually even turn away from the slots long enough to watch the horses race at the racetracks. In states such as Delaware and West Virginia, the slots are keeping the horses in business. Pennsylvania voted for two things in November: John Kerry and slot tracks. One will last.

It's all very upside down. Americans still do bet the races. They just can't be bothered to watch the races. Once legalized gambling spread out of Nevada, gamblers, impatient by nature, didn't need any longer to bother to go to a place where you can only get a bet down every half-hour. We always hear how our attention span is so much shorter these days. No more so than when it comes to betting. Slot machines are, in many respects, the toy that adults never, ever had before.

Ah, but horse racing again comes out of hiding this Saturday with the Kentucky Derby. Maybe most Americans don't know a horse from a wildebeest anymore and only want to watch cars race, but the Derby is still as joyous a piece of Americana as there is. This year, there's a special interest, too, for baseball fans. George Steinbrenner, the disputatious owner of the New York Yankees, is also the owner of the heavy favorite Bellamy Road. Most assuredly, then, most Americans who hate the Yankees will be rooting for Bellamy Road. This is on the assumption that God would surely not let one man, perhaps especially George Steinbrenner, win both the Kentucky Derby and the World Series in the same year.

MONTAGNE: Frank Deford's newest book is "The Old Ball Game," about baseball in America at the start of the 20th century. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

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