There is a defining line at Churchill Downs that separates those that wear floppy hats and inebriate themselves with Mint Juleps and those that wear cut-off t-shirts and drink light beer by the case. On Saturday, as I’ll Have Another was dashing past Bodemeister and into the annals of history, that line was defined by a race. But on a daily basis, that dirt lined track represents more than a place to let powerful beasts run.
For quite some time, horse racing has been viewed as somewhat of a gentry sport, but the sport is deeply rooted in the working class. The moments in time that we associate with fancy soirees and the jubilant cheers of Millionaire’s Row usually start on farms and in barns.
Working class people bring these valiant steeds into the world, and the daily grind of training a race horse comes from long hours of back-breaking work. So how come those that are responsible for physically growing the sport are the guys most likely to be found inside the track?
There is no questioning the fact that the traditions of the Kentucky Derby are magical. They’re fortified by 137 years of tradition, but the gap between social classes is highlighted by the “Run for the Roses.”
There is a stigma associated with both what happens outside the track and what happens within, and the general consensus is that horse racing is all about the swank and pomp of the grandstands at Churchill Downs. The reality is that the sport is actually driven by the people with obscured — if any — sight lines and two dollar tickets with the 50-1 longshot to win.
It’s understandable that we associate the derby with the Vineyard Vines wearing high society we see on television, but the sport is much closer to blue-collar than you’d ever guess. It’s about the stable boy who lines Union Rags’ stall with hay and the construction worker armed with a general admission ticket and $100 dollars to burn.
The Triple Crown races and the Breeder’s Cup are the public faces of the sport, but on a more permanent basis the sport is entwined with middle America. At tracks across the country, the day-to-day operations are designed to cater to the middle-class as opposed to the grand spectacles we see in televised stakes races.
That’s when the gap between social classes is highlighted, and it is the reason why horse racing is so often lamented by equal rights groups. However, there is actually a tangible connection between horse racing and the typical American.
It’s nowhere near the oligarchy that it appears to be, but when it’s dressed up in pastels it still highlights the divide between classes. That seems to annoy people because it enhances the idea that the gap is growing. That may be the case, but the reality of horse racing is that it’s a lot more relatable than that. And there is something poetic about that relationship.
But, horse racing has always been a poetic sport.