Published: May 8, 2017 12:00:00 PM


The Kentucky Derby remains the last bastion of monarchical glory we're chanced to witness in America. Terrible to think this is all that we can cling to that reminds us of good King George, especially since the Queen isn't on our money (suck it, Canada!).

I don't not use that word "witness" lightly. This horse race is privilege we should be so happy to observe. To live in this moment in history when people men and women so much greater than us, wearing fine clothing frilled with lace, dyed with colors smashed from seashells stolen from far-off shores—we ought to be honored.

The Kentucky Derby is absolutely not a race for the dead, you guys—

The Kentucky Derby is a race for the living.

I dare not look directly at the television screen. I might accidentally discover the world isn't flat, or the king may accidentally glanced down at me, noticing my pupils dilating from lack of sunlight. These land-gods may notice the stench on me and worry that their million-dollar race-animal—nurtured from a wee-sized semen sample bought off an Australian and validated by a third party—could be startled! This ultra-horse might get spooked, under-perform, and then we wouldn't have a show, would we?

You do want a show, don't you?

I should be so grateful. Countless humans have lived their lives without an opportunity to even see a horse, let alone a horse that can run quickly beneath the watchful eyes of thousands of people. And not just any people! Did you see those hats? We'll talk about them in greater detail in a moment, but this is a triumph of money-spending that neither you nor I, with our tiny, malnourished, un-hatted brains, could not even begin to conceive. This is beautiful commerce. We could not fathom the odds-making, or properly gamble with the precise talent these princes and princesses so high above. These horse breeders, these lawn tenders, these stable-buying, Argentinian-paying, corporate-investing gods of hooves and saddles, they do not hesitate at the moral quandary of beating animals with sticks to put on a show and entertain one another, and us.


We cannot conceive of the exhibited craft. We're too dumb-struck by numbers with five digits. We're too comforted by time standing still in the state of Kentucky. We're too amazed by what it costs for one night of violent passion with 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah [sic] (it's $400,000). We just like watching people in suits cook barbecue with a high-definition camera trained on them. We like the craziness of drinking liquor with mint in it. We think it's funny that people so small ride animals so big—

—don't look at the king! He's working! It might look like this half-drunk casino magnate, corn-silk hair like a mad-scientist Bond henchmen and arm-locked to a wife (third? fourth?) who definitely owns twelve dogs, but only spitefully feeds two of them, yeah, he might look like he's having a good time on a sunny Saturday watching his living property sprint around a mud pit, but, damn it, he's working! And that's the most expensive mud pit money can buy!

You down there! Take a moment to understand: spending money is craft. Do you know how hard it is to spread the cash around JUST RIGHT so you can buy a horse, put it in a barn somewhere, get a guy to train the animal so it knows when to be frothing psycho for exactly two minutes while turning corners?

No. You don't.

But we do know what you do like and that's gambling. Gambling is the great equalizer. God knew it. Danny Ocean knew it. And Michael Jordan knows it.

Gambling means once in a lifetime one person with a ton of money might bleed, like, a tad. There's no better place to gamble than a horse track. It's the perfect combination of knowing stuff, and a billion things possibly going wrong. Everybody's had stuff go wrong before. Whether rich or poor, stuff goes wrong, and everybody knows it. Bet on the universe hating everybody equally: bet on a horse, dude.

Of course, the universe doesn't hate everybody equally. If the universe hated everybody equally, casinos wouldn't exist. If the universe hated everybody equally, an odds-making mobile phone app wouldn't own the most profitable racing mudpit in the world. If the universe hated everybody equally, the same company that makes Pepsi, Doritos, and KFC wouldn't have their name tacked at the top of the odds board at the Kentucky Derby.

Gambling pits one poor man's dollar against the might of a trust fund, fought via a proxy competition between horses nobody's ever seen: brought to you by YUM! Brands salt-poison.

The Kentucky Derby is a race for the dead.

It's a competition between millionaires whose only talent is spending, risking, and potentially losing money. How do we participate? Lucky us, we've earned the reserved seating to witness MAYBE one person overestimate their buying powers in horse semen futures.

In reality, not enough is gambled at the Kentucky Derby. It should be more costly. Horses should cost even more. Owners should have to put up their houses for mortgage. They should have to consign their living names, scratched in blood, to a stallion-headed god of the deep. When the camera pans to the owners box during coverage on NBC, we should be treated to ragged clothing on toothless, ill psychos down to their last sane thought because they've sacrificed literally everything of value for the opportunity to Gamble The Most on this race.

Not enough is at stake for them. The prizes should be even bigger! They shouldn't be drinking mint juleps or bourbon mash whiskey, they should be doing whippets out of brown paper bags from up in that perch. The race's broadcasters tell me the owners' section is called The Mansion. Tickets usually retail for $12,500.

Adjusted in this new reality, the price for owners is updated to: their daughter's maidenhead. Jeez, that hardly seems like enough for these sorts of folks.

If physicality is an art form, if athleticism is beautiful, if the business aspect of horse racing is as critical as six hours of pre-race broadcast suggests, then horse owners are artists the same way Pablo Picasso was an artist, and we should demand greater physical mutilation and sacrifice from these artists.

"I don't use a brush, I use a fountain pen!" some dead-serious Yale undergraduate shrieks across the raquetball club's locker room to deafening, goose-honking laughter.

If the Kentucky Derby's appeal for us, the audience, is to observe Something Beautiful in a horse race, something that we don't have the opportunity to normally observe, then I want to see something more remarkable than live-action role-played commerce (we call that LARP'ing). That's all this is. This is observation of another planet of people who are so dramatically different from us that they would spend $70,000 on a tailored suit that summons the image of Mardi Gras tripping while walking down marble stairs, frightened by the sight of San Francisco Pride Week walking in their direction, plummeting down, pelvis first into the inevitable comparisons that we in the gutter will assume about the upper classes.

This art on display is what we, the Spectators, make of it. The conversation that the art of the Kentucky Derby elicits is indeed inspirational. It's not inspirational in the way that, oh, I don't know, The Magic Flute, by Mozart, would fill me with such passion that I'd wanna riot across Vienna. No, instead, it's the kind of inspiration that makes me believe if I had the money to nurture such beautiful animals, I don't think I'd decorate it with the oblivious garishness of a No-Fucking-Poor-People Sweet 16 Party, staged in a Midwestern American state whose chief industry is, "production of transportation equipment."

Demand more of your athletic, your artistic, and your fashion avatars.

The Kentucky Derby is dead.

-- Alex Crumb
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