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The Run for the Roses: An Exciting Two Minutes of Bluegrass Local History



The peak season of professional horse racing breaks from the gate this Saturday at 6:24 PM, after the bugle sounds and twenty thoroughbreds contend nose-to-nose down to the wire for the 142ndKentucky Derby, at Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky. The Derby is the first race in the Triple Crown, and has been the apogee of the turf since 1875, the oldest continuously-held pro sporting event in the United States, preceding the first Westminster Dog Show by two years.  

Lincoln Cabin

Kentucky is the birthplace of President Abraham Lincoln, and the First Lady of Country Music, Loretta Lynn. As Kentucky horse farms bred prize colts like Citation and legendary fillies like Ruffian, the state, too, provided the stables of Hollywood with actors like Johnny Depp, Ashley Judd, George Clooney, Ashley Judd, Harry Dean Stanton, Ashley Judd, and manjack scene-chewer Charles Napier.  

Likely the “Greatest” Kentuckian of the Baby Boomer generation is Muhammad Ali, born and raised in Louisville. 

Lexington, Kentucky, in Fayette County, is the home of Keeneland racetrack, and the dominion of Big Blue Nation, where the college basketball squad for the University of Kentucky is abided with the primeval and prepossessed credence of a Neo-pythagorean. Lexington is often called the “Horse Capital of the World"; at one time, Central Kentucky bred and sold horses for sport and transportation the way Detroit built cars.  “Long before the mid-nineteenth century, Americans recognized that the strongest, fastest racehorses came from the Bluegrass region.” In 1876, General Custer rode to his last rewards at the hands of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors on the back of an ex-racehorse the General had acquired from a Lexington stud farm.

Man O' War

The first Kentucky Derby was hosted by the grandson of archetypal trekker-of-the-frontier William Clark, but who was named after Clark’s co-adventurer, Meriwether Lewis.  “M. L. ‘Lutie’ Clark, a dapper and physically imposing man with slicked-down hair and a flower habitually in his lapel, imagined the Kentucky Derby as an event on a grand scale from the beginning.”  The event finds forebears in an English sporting tradition,  but is located in a state filled with towns and cities named for French places, like Versailles, Paris, La Grange, LaFayette, and Louisville, after French Bourbon King Louis XVI, located in Jefferson County, named after the bibliognost polymath yeoman of early American statecraft, and infamous Francophile. The betting protocol at Churchill Downs is known as pari-mutuel, or “mutual bet” in the City of Lights.

Pari-Mutuel Machine Prior to Electronic Totalisator

The race is famous for the wearing of lavish hats by railbirds in fine frippery and julep-quaffing maidens in the grandstands.  The mint julep is the official cocktail of the Derby, made with that indigenous distilled and barrel-aged potation of Kentucky, bourbon whiskey. Local lore and hydrogeology affirm the unique richness of limestone that constitutes bluegrass water, in springs, streams, and groundwater, and which forms the key element in the alchemy of what was known in the days of keelboatmen and Shawnee raiders as “western whiskey.” 

The standout horse trade of the region has also relied on this aqueous singularity. Prior to the 1792 inaugural meeting of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, by over 400 million years, in the Ordovician Period of Earth’s adolescence, the bulk of land above the equator was under water:

Surging seas swept over this shallow shelf, bringing with them the millions of invertebrates that left behind a precious natural gift, their fossilized shells, which gave rise through the millennia to a particular form of limestone rock, the building block that horsemen have long believed is critical to raising a strong-boned racehorse.”

Indeed, in Louisville, a contending standout landmark with Churchill Downs is the commanding 19th century Doric totem of the Water Tower.

Seeing Louisville 1937 pamphlet

The original ten branches of the Louisville Free Public Library System, established in 1905 by the nationwide endowment initiatives of Andrew Carnegie, included the first public library in America devoted to African-American patrons. In 1908, the library reported packed crowds for the Children’s Reading Club; a high use of books on law, theology, and medicine by black students of the Medical College and University of Louisville; and 288 reference questions answered in the month of January. As noted by a 1976 American Libraries article, in 1922, “more books per capita were read in Louisville black communities than in any white community in the South.” Rev. Thomas F. Blue, the head of what was known until 1948 as the “Colored Department,” pioneered library science training before the first official library school for African-Americans opened in Hampton, Virginia, in 1924.

Kentucky sided with the Union in the Civil War, but remained a slaveholding state. "Americans of that era did not readily view Kentucky as Southern," Maryjean Wall says in the introduction to How Kentucky Became Southern.  "Neither did all Kentuckians."  Lexington had acquired the nickname, "Athens of the West," as distinct from Nashville, the "Athens of the South," even though Lexington is over two hundred miles northeast from Music City, U.S.A. Louisville is described in the folksay of regional America as either the southernmost city in the north or the northernmost city in the south.

Old Kaintuck

These intricacies are typically misapprehended, if at all, by the blinkered perspective of New Yorkers, who enjoy citing ignorance of anything west of the Hudson River, including the state of New Jersey; pride in this provincial elitism is epitomized by tireless rehashings of Saul Steinberg’s 1976 View of the World From 9th Avenue. The Big Apple (a turf-inspired nickname) is a city of almost nine million people because the population is constituted in parts by Americans from all 50 states.  Some of such folk, on Saturday, will be dressed in seersucker or baroque millinery and cheering for their horse to finish in the money.     



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Derby Article

I have been saving this to relish on Derby Morning along with my tea and cinnamon bread. A delightful page of anecdotes and fun facts. Long live the pari-mutuel.

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