Derby Day

Mary Simon, 52, a free-lance writer in the horse industry, wrote the 2002 book “Racing Through the Century: The Story of Thoroughbred Racing in America.” She has attended many a Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville as a fan and as a journalist. But today she’ll be watching the 133rd running of the Derby on TV at her home in Lexington, in the heart of the Blue Grass State’s horse country. I talked to her Wednesday about today’s big race and the state of the horse racing industry.

Bill Steigerwald: Why is the Kentucky Derby the world’s greatest horse race?

Mary Simon: Well, it’s debatable that it is the world’s greatest horse race. People in France would argue that the Arc d’ Triumph is the greatest horse race. In England they might say the Epsom Derby is the world’s greatest. In this country, the Kentucky Derby is certainly the most famous, but as far as the world’s greatest? I’d argue with that.

Steigerwald: Isn’t this kind of like an all-star race though?

Simon: It is. Every year the people with the best three-year-olds point for this race and every year you lose some horses along the way to injury, illness or whatever. So very often the Derby is a great spectacle and a great gala occasion, but it’s often that the very best horses aren’t actually in it.

Steigerwald:  Do you have to be at the Derby to fully enjoy it?

Simon: Not at all. Not at all. In fact, I watch the Derby at home now, because I’ve been there and done that. I’ve been down in the crowds and it’s just too intense for me. If you’re that kind of person and you like all that excitement and electricity and people pushing against each other and women wearing big hats and half-naked men in the infield pouring beer on each other, it’s a wonderful celebration of Kentucky and a celebration of the thoroughbred. But it was difficult for me to get into the moment when I was there. I’ve been down around the crowd and then I did the press box thing and I felt so detached during the race – you’re above, looking a mile down. They start with “My Old Kentucky Home” and the horses are coming on the track …. Usually when I’m at home watching on television I’m bawling my eyes out. And up there it was like it was on a different planet.

Steigerwald: Bawling your eyes out?

Simon: Yeah, bawling my eyes out — Boo hooo hooo hooo!!!!

Steigerwald: Because of the excitement or because you have all your money on one horse?

Simon: No. The sentiment. When they come out on the track and the band starts playing “My Old Kentucky Home,” it’s just one of these things. If it doesn’t bring a tear to your eye or a lump in your throat, I don’t know ….

Steigerwald: Is there a greatest Derby race ever?

Simon: With the Derby, no. There are many good races. Now if you said the Belmont Stakes, obviously Secretariat’s 31-length win (in 1973) would be the one. But with the Derby there are just so many good finishes and good races. The very famous one that comes to mind, but not necessarily the greatest, was the 1933 Derby, when Brokers Tip beat Head Play by a nose. He was a maiden. He’d never won before and he beat this champion by a very short nose. But photographers caught pictures of the two jockeys fighting through the stretch. It’s a very famous shot of the jockeys reaching across and kicking and grabbing and whipping each other. So that one went down as a very colorful finish.

Steigerwald: Why is it that Secretariat still holds the Derby record – that was in 1973?

Simon: He was just a different kind of animal that we haven’t seen since. He was so extraordinary. He was this physical creature that we’ve not been able to even come close to reproducing since then. He was like Man O’ War in his day. They both seemed to be able to just break records at will. I’d have to look it up in the record books, but I’d think he has more than one record still standing at different tracks. This horse could do it all. I think we all just wait to see another one like him, but I don’t know if we will.

Steigerwald: Has the Kentucky Derby been helped or ruined by the commercialization – the advertising, the corporate suites?

Simon: Well, it hasn’t been ruined. I’m not real thrilled when I hear the Derby called “The Yum Brand Derby.” But they’ve been doing that for years in England – the major sponsors: The Eveready (Battery) Epsom Derby. It helps finance the race. I know Visa had been the sponsor for years for the Derby and they had done some of the greatest advertising for horse racing. They promoted the Derby – the Triple Crown, in fact. I can’t be too resentful.

Steigerwald: It’s the way the world works now. If you are going to have a viable event or a viable industry, you better get on the advertising, commercializing band wagon.

Simon: I think you’re right. It’s big business. It’s not the gentlemanly “Sport of Kings” of a century ago or before. It’s kind of going along with the times and adapting. Fortunately, we have corporate sponsors who want to put their money into horse racing.

Steigerwald: Is the race itself or horse racing in general as popular as it used to be?

Simon: I think it’s having a comeback. It kind of ebbs and flows. Racing, at one point earlier in the century, and for a long time, was by far the Number One spectator sport in America. People came out in droves. Jockeys and horses were all their heroes. When other forms of gambling started getting a foothold and expanding and other sports came into the public eye, the competition took a lot away from racing. They’ve had to adapt with the off-track betting, the satellite wagering, casino slots machines at the track – a lot of things as an old-time purist I’m not enthralled with personally. But you do what you have to do to survive and it’s not always pretty.

Steigerwald: I did a Google search for “horse racing industry” and the first Web site is PETA’s. By the time I read their basic summary of all of what’s wrong with horse racing, I was going to call the FBI on the state of Kentucky. PETA says horse racing is all about horses being drugged, and 800 horses dying a year…. “Drugs, Deception and Death,” they say.

Simon: Let me first say I actually like PETA. I get their newsletter, and they make some valid points. But the fact is that horse racing — especially in recent years – has really been trying to address racetrack breakdowns – why do these things happen with the frequency they do? As far as the drugs, yes, that’s still an issue. They test for them. They’re always finding new drugs they have to test for. The trainers are punished. They’re trying to police the sport and I don’t believe that it is a sport that has run amok. It has its problems that need to be addressed. I have a hard time every time I see a horse break down on the racetrack. It just tears the heart out of me. In that regard, PETA, and voices like PETA, may be extreme, but they also encourage us to continue pursuing means of changing this.

Steigerwald: Is there a single, screamingly wrong thing with the horse-racing sport at the moment?

Simon: No. Not screamingly wrong. Just little things. The biggest thing, really, is what you just brought up – issues with racetrack breakdowns. The Barbaros, and the Ruffians – the horses that catastrophically break down. We need to make that happen as little as possible.

Steigerwald: What does racing’s future look like to you as an industry and a sport?

Simon: It’s hard for me to say. One of the reasons I’m a historian is that I like to live in the past. I live in the past because the present and the future make me a little nervous. I’m that way about everything – America as a whole, civilization as a whole — not just horse racing. I’d like to be optimistic and say that horse racing is heading  in the right direction. We’re going to address the issues of concern. We’re going to stabilize our fan base, hopefully, and create new fans.

I think Barbaro was an amazing horse. Especially after his injury, the outpouring of love and attention and interest that was inspired just by this horse – to me that was encouraging. It showed that people cared, people were interested. Lots of children were sending letters to him. On Derby day there’s going to be a documentary on Barbaro. Out at Delaware Park, families came out to celebrate his actual birthday this past week. I want to be hopeful, but there are so many ways we can shoot ourselves in the foot. But it’s the same as with America at large.

Steigerwald: Do you have a bet for this Saturday and who is it?

Simon: Well, I’m probably not going to bet, but I kind of like Curlin, who didn’t race at age two. It’s been since 1882 that a horse that didn’t race at two has won the Kentucky Derby. I like to see those jinx’s overthrown.