Notes on the 2008 Kentucky Derby
This afternoon I watched the Kentucky Derby the way I used to watch it before moving to Lexington, which is how most non-Kentucky natives watch “the most exciting two minutes in sports”: at home, lounging on the couch, and with mild amusement. I guess I have yet to assimilate fully and accept this Kentucky ritual of horse worship and class distinction.
This year’s race, the quintessential amalgam of that tissue-thin difference between triumph and tragedy, featured the dominant performance of Big Brown, which, by the way, is not a lame and uncreative name for a horse but rather a nod to its major corporate sponsor, UPS. And, much to the chagrin of the Kentucky faithful, the race also featured the tragic equine end of Eight Belles, the horse that captured the hearts of women everywhere because she too is a women competing among the boys. Eight Belles was bled dry as she chased Big Brown down the home stretch and broke both of her ankles. It’s hard to justify the enthusiasm attached to most major sports in the United States, but it’s even more difficult to accept a sport that breeds its animal participants for failure. “A thoroughbred racer is a million-dollar animal on a ten-cent pair of legs,” as one Lexington news anchor glibly put it after the race. The same news anchor proceeded to speculate as to whether Eight Belles met her untimely death because she had the body of a woman. And we wonder why Kentucky consistently registers as one of the least progressive states in terms of gender equity.
The thing I can’t stand about the Kentucky Derby is, to no surprise of my regular reader(s), the solemn singing of “My Old Kentucky Home.” I’ve written about the moral ambiguities of this song before, and so I find it infuriating that NBC makes it such an integral part of its coverage and mythologizing of the Kentucky spirit. Tom Hammond reminds us that few moments in sports are as special as the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home.” Is the network in any way disconcerted by a song meant to serve as a sentimental portrait of slave labor in Kentucky? Does it care that the song’s opening lines, “The sun shines bright on the old Kentucky home, / ‘Tis summer, the darkies are gay,” remained as such until 1986, when a group of concerned citizens demanded that the derisive “darkies” be changed to the more inclusive “people?”
The NBC telecast, in addition to leaving ample time for Yum! Brands, Inc. to remind us of its global fast-food hegemony, also included one of the more hilarious Freudian slips (or clever wordplays, or unfortunate verbal mistakes) I’ve seen on the air in some time. Those who labored through the hours of pre-race programming surely noticed the heart-felt story of Jake Desormeaux, son of the winning jockey Kent Desormeaux. Jake has recently received cochlear implants, which fortunately allowed him to hear the roar of the crowd and the majestic strains of “My Old Kentucky Home” for the first time in his life. The feel-good aspect of this story fell apart, though, for our beloved NBC commentator Bob Costas, who again mentioned the implants while the camera sat fixated on “the Desormeaux clan” during the melee immediately following the race. Of course, the “implants” on which the camera focused were not Jake’s hearing aides but (arguably) on his mother’s (note her dress and its receding neckline as she jumps up and down excitedly). This moment may go down as the most infamous sports broadcasting incident since the Janet Jackson Super Bowl.
To be sure, the Kentucy Derby is a treasure trove of cultural myths. So raise a mint julip and give a toast to our old Kentucky home.
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