Kentucky Derby still intriguing

Auto racing has always been a niche sport in this country. It’s got a small fanbase, but it’s a rabid one that lives and dies with it.

Horse racing has an even smaller one, but it’s one that just like auto racing, makes its presence felt every May on a national stage.

Just like the world-famous Indianapolis 500 car race, the Kentucky Derby captures our eyes and it definitely makes the most of that.

While the Indy 500 has a brief prerace ceremony where the national anthem is sung as well as “Back Home Again in Indiana,” the derby wants you to know when race day is as it has a massive prerace show that lasts more than four hours before post time just before 7 p.m.

By that time, you’ve heard about every horse involved, its back story, who sired it as well as who is its trainer, owner and jockey.

You’ll also have heard about the history of the derby and Churchill Downs, famous winners, nostalgic looks at past races and probably interviews with the various celebrities there.

The attendees will try to outdo each other with their fancy and bizarre hats while sipping mint juleps. You also might hear how to make a mint julep, which might be the only drink that requires you to dress like Colonel Sanders to properly appreciate it.

It may be the same information and talking points year after year, but it’s still intriguing. Like Indy, it’s an American classic that you have to watch each year. By God, you’d be un-American if you didn’t.

I know people in the Upper Peninsula who host Derby parties where friends come over to watch the race, drink juleps or Kentucky bourbon and the women wear elaborate hats made out of paper plates.

That’s even the case at the Journal office. Not the hats or the booze, but the spirit is there. I’ve been working the desk shift on race day, putting together the sports pages, but I drop everything and head over to the TV in the newsroom to watch when the race actually starts. I’m usually joined by some of the news staff, who may have zero interest in the sport, but just want to see who comes out on top. It really does bring people together.

I’ve been to the Indy 500 twice now, once as a writer and once as a fan, and it’s truly majestic. Yeah, it’s noisy and cramped and usually hot and humid, but you want to be there. You can probably zone out for the majority of it and play with your phone, perk up when there’s a crash just to see who’s involved, and then just enjoy the sunshine.

However, when that white flag waves signaling the final lap, everyone pays attention. I watched even people who hated car racing jump up to see if Alexander Rossi literally had enough gas left in his tank to win, let alone complete the race in 2016.

I imagine that’s the same way for the derby, although the race is quite short, so people should be able to pay attention for a couple of minutes. After all, the race is called the “most exciting two minutes in sports.” If you can’t pay attention that long, you should probably consult a physician.

I may have seen the 500 twice, but the derby still eludes me. I’ve been to Kentucky a couple times when I worked in southern Illinois, but I never ventured too far. I could tell, though, fairly quickly how much horses and horse racing are a part of the state’s culture and it made me want to attend the derby even more someday.

I’ve tried to be there in spirit by even sitting through parts of the grueling prerace show and asking people who have attended it in person what it’s like, but trying to create an image of an event, even if it’s a vivid one, just isn’t the same as being there.

This year’s race, which by the time you’re reading this will be well over, was an intriguing one going in because there was no real favorite. The one that seemed to be the front-runner, Omaha Beach, was scratched due to an entrapped epiglottis (a piece of cartilage at the base of the airway above the soft palette).

If the horse had run, it could’ve had difficulty breathing, which is kind of important. It’s going to go through surgery, but that will end its Triple Crown bid. So the race was wide open this year, and although there was in theory a favorite in Game Winner, it wasn’t an overwhelming one.

There’s two types of races that make the derby intriguing, one where there’s a huge favorite and you wonder if it will capture the Preakness and Belmont Stakes to complete the Triple Crown, an achievement that hadn’t been done for 37 years until American Pharaoh did it in 2015.

The other type of race is like this weekend’s where you really don’t know who will win and then the Triple Crown becomes even more of a question mark. They’re both fun and now we get to see if this year’s winner can pull off two more big victories.

The sport is something that few of us follow diligently, other than making a couple bets at the track if you’re near one. I grew up not too far from one in Minnesota and the horses’ names are what intrigued me the most.

I still remember when I was 10 years old and Cocowheats and Toast, who I told my dad to bet on, ended up winning. It was one of the few bets that I’ve suggested that has worked out, so that’s a sense of pride that I’ve held onto for years.

Even though the names were what I found the most enjoyable, I still remember jumping up and down hoping that whoever one of my family members bet on came in first. It’s truly an enjoyable feeling and there’s not many moments that come close to that, other than the final lap of Indy.

That’s what the derby provides us.

Horse racing may be a niche sport, but for one day a year — or maybe two or even three — it’s front and center in America and even after all these years, it’s still intriguing. It’s truly the most exciting two minutes in sports, and each year we keep coming back for more.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.