LOUISVILLE, Ky. — I know that horse racing has problems. They will run the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, and most sports fans in America won't pay much more attention to the sport until this time next year, unless the Triple Crown becomes a possibility, or there's an unfortunate tragedy.
This week we've heard renewed concerns about the well-being of racehorses. They're legitimate. We've heard complaints about the way Churchill Downs is treating horsemen and other longtime racing fixtures. Those too, completely legitimate.
One walk through the Kentucky Derby Museum is enough to remind you that the sport isn't what it used to be. I'll go one better. The horses aren't what they used to be. The breed is not as stable, the horses not as durable or, really, even as fast, despite all the breeding for speed. It's a sport and a breed in decline.
I know all the problems. But this is why you should care about the Kentucky Derby. This is what this one horse race has over every other major sporting event in the nation, and perhaps the world.
There is no more democratic event in sports. They used to call it the sport of kings. These days, you also could call it the sport of kings for a day.
Consider the millions of dollars Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum has spent trying to win this race. But he isn't in the Derby this year, and has nearly won it.
Daniel and Lori Dougherty are here. The Louisville residents who used to own a furniture store paid the bargain basement price of $25,000 for the son of Curlin, and got the deal on him because he had a turned-in foot. His trainer, "Bronco" Billy Gowan was down to one horse not too long ago, because of injuries. That one horse was this one, who Calvin Borel will ride in the Derby.
It's not the only story. Each year brings new ones.
You can watch the Super Bowl, where billionaire owners whose teams play in publicly financed stadiums clash in battles of blue-bloods.
In the Kentucky Derby, the blue bloods are trying to get in. The Doughertys have been offered more than a million for their colt. No way.
The owners of California Chrome have been offered six times that. Steve Coburn and Perry Martin call their operation "Dumb-Ass Partners," and some would say it's exactly that to turn down a $6 million offer. Coburn didn't like the idea of some big-shot coming in and buying the Kentucky Derby. "The offer came from somebody who never put on a pair of boots to go to work in the morning," he said.
I'm not saying horse racing isn't a rich person's game. It is. It always has been. But you can spend a ton of money and never make it to the Kentucky Derby. You can breed and wheel and deal and never feel the excitement of your horse on the track when "My Old Kentucky Home" is played.
The most expensive colt ever bought at auction — for $16 million — raced three times, never won, and was retired. A colt that was bred for a $2,500 stud fee is the favorite for this year's Derby.
Name me another sport in which people with regular jobs walk onto a level playing field with royalty.
In this year's Derby, there are syndicates and causes, Wounded Warrior project benefactors, and wine distributors. Wildcat Red is owned by Salvatore Delfino and his wife Josie Martino Delfino, wine importer/exporters from Venezuela.
Art Sherman, trainer of California Chrome, has been trying to train a Kentucky Derby starter his whole life. Others get here quickly.
Wicked Strong runs in memory of the Boston Marathon bombing victims. Samraat is owned by the the chairman of Barnes & Noble, Leonard Riggio, who built the bookstore giant out of one college bookstore he opened in 1965.
The Dale Romans-trained Medal Count is owned by historic Spendthrift Farm. Commanding Curve is owned by West Point Thoroughbreds, a syndicate founded by Terry Finley, a former artillery officer.
They come from all over. The super wealthy, the moderately well-to-do, and the ones who have poured everything into this opportunity hoping it will lead to more.
The special thing about the first Saturday in May is that no matter how many resources they have, when the horses go into the paddock, it's saddle, and rider, and talent and luck that will determine who fades, and who goes down in history. And there's not a bank account on the track that can change that.
Sure, you can buy the Kentucky Derby. You can also spend hundreds of millions and not buy it. Of the 49 most expensive yearlings purchased at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale in 2012, none will start in the Kentucky Derby. You have to get to Intense Holiday, the 50th most expensive, to find a starter.
In a world where, increasingly, money rules all, the Derby has a way of breaking wealthy hearts as easily as anyone else's.
Horse racing has problems, yes. I'm not even suggesting that anyone forget about them.
For two minutes on the first Saturday in May, it doesn't matter how much money you have. It matters how much horse you have. It doesn't matter if you got to Churchill Downs in a private jet flown halfway around the world or a horse trailer from New Mexico. For two minutes in May, money doesn't matter.
It's not often in sports you can say that anymore.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and WDRB-TV in Louisville. Eric Crawford is a columnist for WDRB.
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