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What's Wrong with the Kentucky Derby?

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What's Wrong with the Kentucky Derby?

What's Wrong with the Kentucky Derby?

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Okay, here's something to imagine: a sports calendar that makes sense. Our commentator Frank Deford says some sports' schedules remind him of a certain character.

FRANK DEFORD: Did you ever talk about Nutsy Fagin around your neighborhood? When somebody acted, well, nutsy, we said, he's as nutsy as Nutsy Fagin. There's some question who exactly the Nutsy Fagin was. He might have been a guy in 19th century New York who liked to join funeral processions under the impression they were parades. And, of course, we weren't so considerate then. A guy was fat, we called him Fats. A guy was nutsy, hey, we called him Nutsy.

Anyway, I always think of Nutsy Fagin when I see how some sports handle their schedule. For example, the most important NASCAR race is the Daytona 500 -first big race of the year. It would be as if the NFL started with the Super Bowl and worked backwards from there.

The two most different surfaces in tennis are clay and grass, but as soon as the French clay championships end, they immediately switch to grass and start Wimbledon only two weeks later. Only Nutsy Fagin could have dreamed that up. College football teams finish their regular schedule in November, maybe early December. Then the two championship contenders take a whole month off before meeting for the national title in January.

Nothing, though, is so dopey as the way horse racing conducts its premier event, the Kentucky Derby, which, of course, is run this Saturday - by custom, the first Saturday in May. In how many details can they screw it up? Let me count the ways.

First of all, the Derby is run at a mile and a quarter, which is a long distance for young 3-years-olds to cover. Thoroughbreds race a lot less now, and they're bred more for speed, too. As if running the mile and a quarter early in May isn't asking too much, the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness, will be conducted in just two weeks time. And not only that, the Preakness is shorter than the Derby. So, they run the longer race first, then rush into the second, shorter one.

Then, just three weeks later comes the Triple Crown finale, the Belmont. That means the three races are jammed together in only five weeks. Big Brown, the probable Derby favorite, has so far only raced three times in his whole life. The Belmont is run at a mile and a half. This is a distance virtually no race horse in America runs anymore, except for the Belmont.

But to make it sound special rather than idiotic, a mile and a half is always called a classic distance, which is true enough, especially if you think classic means out of fashion. The Belmont is a classic the way the set shot in basketball is. But, of course, nobody in basketball is dumb enough to use the set shot anymore just because it's classic.

Moreover, at the Derby, to start the Triple Crown off, they let 20 horses run, which is far too many. So the most important race in America is more determined by luck than skill as the thundering herd blasts out of the starting gates. No wonder no colt ever wins the Triple Crown anymore.

So Saturday, when the band starts playing "My Old Kentucky Home" and the thoroughbred stampede comes onto the track, I always raise my mint julep and say, you did it again, Nutsy Fagin!

(Soundbite of song, "My Old Kentucky Home")

INSKEEP: Commentary from Frank Deford, who shares his mint juleps with us every Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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